Of Course Mormonism has Theology

Dave’s post over at DMI reminded me of first time I heard that Mormonism didn’t have “theology”. Back then I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” As I listened, though, I slowly understood. I also agreed. However, the more I’ve listened to discussions on the topic, the more I’ve found the claim problematic.

The problem with this, as I see it is (at least) two-fold:

First of all, “theology” is removed from it’s broader sense of “faith seeking understanding” to a more specialized/technical sense that disqualifies not only Mormonism from having theology, but just about every religion besides Christianity (and only certain kinds of Christianity there in). Etymological concerns aside, I’m not persuaded that this amounts to much more than saying Mormons have not engaged in activities such as those done by Schleiermacher or convened councils to enact creeds. Many, if not all of these conclusions are already known, and could be arrived at without invoking the term ‘theology’. I am also not persuaded that much is gained by using so narrow a definition.

Secondly (and this is the bone I really wanted to pick), it seems that all too often we use the notion of no “theology” to create a convenient “other” for us to work in opperation against. “We” are a-theological and not bound by the same constructs as “they” are. We revel in our a-theology because it gives us the leeway to build multiple intellectual positions, and not be so hard and fast in our definitions and doctrines. I believe this leads to us creating ways of thinking that are “Orientalist” in as much as we require this “other” for self definition and identity.

  • http://www.bycommonconsent.com RoastedTomatoes

    Thanks for this, Smallaxe. I agree that I can find no sense of the word “theology” that makes the claim that Mormonism has little theology simultaneously true and useful. If by theology we mean systematic reasoning from revealed precepts, we’ve got that in Ostler, McMurrin, and others. If we mean exploring possibilities for how our religious symbols can be interpreted so as to give them continued life in a changing world, we’ve got a lot of that. If we mean something along the lines of attempts at authoritative definitions of what must be believed to belong to the church, then “True to the Faith” and other similar publications would arguably belong to the genre.

    What we lack in Mormonism is theological unity. There are a variety of ways of “reading” Mormonism within the church and the community. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think that makes us unique.

  • Jeremiah J.

    “Etymological concerns aside, I’m not persuaded that this amounts to much more than saying Mormons have not engaged in activities such as those done by Schleiermacher or convened councils to enact creeds.”

    I think it amounts to quite a bit more than that. For Jews, Muslims, and, I think, Mormons, theology is not a central element of religious life, because right opinion is for the most part not crucial for membership in the community (Mormons are distinguished by what they believe, but much moreso by the authorities they accept and the way they behave. And the latter are more important for remaining in good standing). If right opinion is not centrally important, then getting having a discipline devoted to maintaining and clarifying right opinion is not centrally important.

    I think that most of the things which Mormons might consider theology are either simply doctrine (are the missionary lessons “theological”? If so, the word really isn’t very useful), or are academic pursuits not central to religious life in the Church. The latter may be interesting (they are, very much so, to me) but not centrally important to religious life. So I’d prefer to call these things religious studies or philosophy of religion (in the case of Ostler and McMurrin, etc.) rather than theology.

    You may be right that denying Mormon theology may be involved with a facile attempt to define ourselves against others. But I don’t want to say that of course we have theology, just to throw cold water on facile attempts of that sort.

    There may be, however, ‘theologies of the margins’, if you will, which would parallel ‘dialectical theology’ in Islam–a kind of second-order reflection involved in communication with those outside the faith, e.g. in interreligious dialogue or in political theology. These kinds of theology may become necessary from time to time, even though they are not central to religious life.

  • smallaxe

    I think it amounts to quite a bit more than that. For Jews, Muslims, and, I think, Mormons, theology is not a central element of religious life, because right opinion is for the most part not crucial for membership in the community

    I’m not sure I completely understand your position, so please feel free to clarify where I have gone wrong.

    In making a statement such as the one above you must argue for a certain definition of the word “theology”. This definition is narrow and excludes most (if not all) of the other major world religions. If you want to take this position you must argue for the efficacy of such a definition. Why should we grant that “theology” is only something done by certain kinds of Christians? What do we gain from such a definition? What do we lose? IMO little is gained and much is lost. The situation is better served by employing the language of “correct belief” and “correct practice” (orthodoxy/orthopraxis).

    You may be right that denying Mormon theology may be involved with a facile attempt to define ourselves against others. But I don’t want to say that of course we have theology, just to throw cold water on facile attempts of that sort.

    The danger with any comparative venture is making the two things one compares into polar opposites; which then easily leads to a dialectic of one being superior to the other (at least in certain regards). Any attempt which fits this mold, should have cold water thrown on it. I find it more useful to say that Mormonism does not have a theology like Schleiermacher’s, rather than the blanket statement Mormonism does not have theology. IMO saying the latter would be saying something akin to “Mormonism doesn’t have appologetics” because we aren’t arguing from the “traditional” line of appologetics (Thomist etc.).

    I guess I feel that many of us have allowed a narrow defintion to co-opt a larger, richer definition, with out justification. Not to say, of course, that precision in defining terms is unimportant.


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