An introductory post to this series on an exegesis of Patheos’ “Future of Mormonism” series can be found here. Some very brief thoughts on Blake Ostler’s article in the series is here. Keep in mind that, as I said in the introduction, I’m not going to offer summaries of these articles. They are short enough that the entire article is quickly readable and digestable and I suggest you read them for yourself.
I’ve published my two cents on a portion of the subject of theology in Mormonism here: The Shadow of the Cathedral-On a Systematic Exposition of Mormon Theology. This article mostly concerns the place of systematic theology in Mormon thought. I basically argue that, as long as it is not the sole method for engaging theological issues and concepts in Mormonism, then systematic theology can not only exist alongside other ways of doing Mormon theology, but in certain cases is actually the most useful or productive method for articulating Mormon theology. But only in certain cases.
As I said in the previous post on Blake’s article, it is about as good an assessment of Mormon theology in 1500 words or less as there is. I have some qualms about it (detailed below) but I would recommend it to anyone as a good compact analysis of theology in Mormonism.
There are essentially two parts to Blake’s article. First, a brief discussion of the place of theology in Mormonism. Second, an assessment of the unfinished business Mormon theology has yet to conduct in its potential contributions to understanding science and the natural world.
Blake writes that BYU philosopher James Faulconer believes that the attempt to develop theology (from the Mormon standpoint) is a dangerous or worthless activity. Jim has written a lot on this subject, so naturally his position is more nuanced than this. He does say that attempts to systematize Mormon theology could be dangerous, though in other places he points to the benefits of systematizing Mormon theology when engaged in interfaith dialogue. (This is part of what my above article attempts to defend: that some kind of systematization is extremely helpful when trying to communicate with other faiths). To be fair to Jim, I think he believes that the main danger from systematic theology is to see Mormon thought develop only as systematic, dogmatic theology, where all the parts must fit together in such a way that the revision or excision of any one part (further revelation through prophets, for example) results in the collapse of the system as a whole, and thus the foundering of the theology. In truth, for various reasons Mormon theology is conceptually and hermeneutically diverse enough that it can accommodate a wide range of theological methodologies. What it lacks in history as a relatively young religion it makes up for in canonicity, with its breadth and depth of scriptural resources. We are really only beginning to see what can be done with Mormon scriptures, with the recent advent of the Mormon Theology Seminar and Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide. (Naturally I couldn’t provide a comprehensive list of the books and projects out there devoted to Mormon scripture, but serious, published engagement with Mormon scripture is, I believe, rather recent).
Theology, of course, is not, as traditionally understood, merely synonymous with scriptural hermeneutics. Every religious tradition of which I am aware utilizes what is essentially the Wesleyan Quadrilateral for its theological reflection: scripture, tradition, reason, experience. Mormon theology is not an exception to this; Mormons regularly refer to scripture, tradition, reason, and experience when articulating theological concepts and beliefs, whether they consciously label these as such or not. But, I do think a strong case can be made for a focus on the centrality of scripture within a religious tradition because of scripture’s concrete normativity. Scripture represents a tangible, universally agreed upon reference point for communicating theology (actual interpretation of scripture, of course, is a different matter–interpretation is always diverse and often oppositional). The other three hermeneutical vehicles, though consistently referred to, are more ambiguous: which traditions? Whose reasoning and why this set of reasons? Whose experience? Why not another experience? Scripture, on the other hand, though not wholly unproblematic for theological communication, is nevertheless a firm constant in a religious tradition, even when visited upon by revision. If there must be a central Mormon theological methodology (and as I say the table appears to be large enough for various methodological guests) then scripture would be its foundation.
Blake agrees with the centrality of scripture for theology and recognizes that determining doctrine from within theology is a difficult, unfinished task. It must wait for a separate post, but I’ve always liked Blake’s view of creative co-participation, in which revelation is a product of divine communication contextually mediated through prophets and communities. I think this is a good explanation for how prophetic revelation has worked, both in the scriptures in in modern times.
Blake writes that the primary task of Mormon theology for the foreseeable future is to assess its relationship to naturalism and the scientific worldview. There are a few issues here. First, this task appears to be more philosophical then theological. There is a mountain of overlap between philosophy and theology, but thinking naturalism and science usually occurs through philosophical discourse, and would more appropriately belong to Mormon philosophy, if that exists (and I think it does). He discusses the need to develop a Mormon epistemology of religious knowledge and a Mormon response to the problem of human consciousness, and these are indeed important concepts that Mormon thinkers have not deeply delved into. The distinction between philosophy and theology (or even philosophical theology and theology proper) may not seem very prominent but there is still a fairly clear distinction. The philosophical task and the theological task are not necessarily the same and should be delineated. Unfinished theological tasks for Mormon theology would include, most importantly, a Mormon theology of religions, in which Mormon thinkers deal more rigorously with the problem of religious diversity in light of Mormonism’s rather strident truth claims. Other theological tasks might include a theology of the Holy Spirit and a more extensive Mormon theological anthropology.
The first point being somewhat trivial, the second is less so. Religion has every right to comment on the natural causal processes of the world, how science has investigated them, and how these might be seen from a religious point of view. But these are not the primary concerns of religion, Mormon theology included. The religious believer has a deep sense of the wonderment contained in the universe, a feeling of surprise mingled with reverence that describes the experience of encountering the world in all its complexity and immensity. This experience or account might include a consideration of cause and effect, of naturalism and the scientific worldview, but being curious about how the world became possible based on prior antecedents is not central to this experience. As Rush Rhees writes, “I do not mean, of course, that religious wonder refrains from asking the cause. It is just not concerned with that question.”
In other words, a religious account of the world is not diametrically opposed to the scientific or philosophical account. It doesn’t obtain in the life of the believer because it is the polar opposite of a scientific rendering of the universe, as if opposition to scientific or philosophical discourse breathes life and meaning into religion and opposition to religion breathes life and meaning into science and philosophy. It is simply that religion is not concerned with the language of cause and effect, and were a religious believer to insist that this was a primary concern, she would be confusing contexts of discourse. As Rhees says, “No one would try to teach children what ‘God’ means by talking about a first cause, or by talking about causes at all…If a devout adult has in some ways a different idea of God than children do, this is not because he can give a different account of anything—nothing like a scientific account, anyway.” Explicating the relationship of Mormon thought in general to naturalism and science may be an unfinished task, but it would not (or should not) be a task for Mormon theology.