Why Are Theological Questions Relatively Unimportant to Mormons?
I suspect we aren't very interested in theological questions because leadership positions in the Church have always been decided by revelation. No ministerial training is required, and except for the highest level positions, officers of the Church are rotated in and out of their positions every so often. That regular movement of lay members of the congregation into and out of leadership positions means that a requirement of theological knowledge would be impossible.
The bishop (roughly equivalent to a Protestant minister) of my congregation is a full-time tradesman who has been bishop for not quite two years. The bishop before him was a research scientist for the Forest Service and served for a little more than five years. Others of my bishops have been basketball coaches, contractors, and bank loan officers. My stake president (roughly equivalent to a Catholic bishop) is a psychology professor.
None of these men had any training in or knowledge of theology because it isn't necessary to the church work they do (any more than it is necessary to the majority of the work that most Christian pastors and priests do). They must oversee the work of a congregation, or in the case of the stake president, several congregations. That means seeing to the spiritual and temporal welfare of their congregants.
Counseling with people who are addicted to pornography or drugs doesn't require theological training nor does helping those weathering the storms of their family life, though both often require trained help. Neither does helping the unemployed or underemployed find work, or providing food, clothing, and shelter for those in need.
Choosing people to give sermons in our Sunday worship service requires knowing the gospel and knowing what the congregation needs to hear preached. It also requires knowing who can be expected to do that preaching. It doesn't require theology.
Similarly, assuring that the Lord's Supper (Mormons call it the Sacrament) is done in order means knowing how the ritual is to be done and knowing the young men who will perform it. Helping those struggling with faith or commitment to the faith seldom requires theological training, but often requires empathy, an understanding and imitation of Christ's love, and wise counsel.
As Mormons see it, Jesus' ministry is the model for our own, and he went about preaching the gospel and healing the sick. So the Mormon emphasis is on preaching the good news of Jesus Christ and aiding those in need, on practice more than on belief. In that emphasis on practice we are more like Jews and Muslims. The French historian of philosophy, Rémi Brague, says "You can be a perfectly competent rabbi or imam without ever having studied philosophy" (The Legend of the Middle Ages, p. 2). He could have added "Mormon bishop."
I have rarely been asked more than basic questions about my theological beliefs in my forty-nine years as a Mormon. Anything that has gone beyond a few basic issues, like whether I believe in God and Jesus Christ, has mostly been a matter of curiosity. But I have often been asked about what I do. Do I give to the poor? Do I also pay a tithe? Do I visit those I've been assigned to visit at least monthly? Do I honor my commitments to my wife and my children? Will I clean the chapel next Saturday morning? Will we take a meal into the family whose mother is ill?
Of course other Christians ask the same questions. Mormons have no monopoly on service or understanding that commitment to Christ will result in a life of good works. But for Mormons that is almost enough. If we confess that Jesus is our Savior and recognize our need for repentance and the cleansing he offers, then the most important questions we can ask after that are questions about the life we should live, not questions about the beliefs we should hold. The Mormon view is that theology is at best an ornament on the Christian life.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.