Theologically Challenged

I was struck by something I noticed in Sunday School this past week when the instructor handed around a reprint of the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. As is well known, the first portion of the text is the Lectures on Faith, corresponding to the notion of “Doctrine” in the title of the text. What I noticed in thumbing through the pages was the word “THEOLOGY” that appeared above the start of the Lectures. It’s been a while since I’ve read the Lectures on Faith, and as far as this post is concerned I’m not necessarily interested in a close reading of it.

What I am interested in, however, is the possibility that the Lectures on Faith represented an impulse in early Mormonism to create a more “systematic” theology (using the term ‘systematic’ in a loose technical sense); and more significantly the tension this creates in contemporary attempts to define Mormonism along a-theological lines. I don’t think what I’m talking about here is entirely a new claim. Its widely recognized that others such as BH Roberts also had a systematic impulse. What was new to me, however, was asking the question of how attempts to define Mormonism as a-theological (or even other attempts to label it a narrative theology) reconcile themselves with this early impulse.

Perhaps the heart of what I’m trying to get it is asking, what is the purpose of the a-theological or narrative project? Are these attempts to describe Mormon theology as it currently stands? Attempts to describe where it’s been all along? Or attempts to prescribe where it should be? Briefly, my sense is that they are often times the latter, disguising themselves as the former, all the while neglecting the middle issue.

Admittedly much of these thoughts come from conversations with people who take these positions, and the literature may be much more thorough in resolving these points. I have not read much of what has been written on the topic.  However, from what little I know it seems to me that much of the current drive is postured as an attempt to accurately describe the kind of theology Mormonism currently has. My sense is that there is little attempt at a historical reconciliation with past systematic impulses.

In other words while there is recognition of past systematic attempts/impulses in doing theology there is little to no account for the discontinuity between the past and the present; nor for valuing the current a-theological position over previous systematic attempts. To state it succinctly, attempting to “describe” current Mormon theology includes a prescriptive element that suggests “this is how it should be done”. This descriptive claim becomes normative in as much as it claims to present the orthodox position. If Mormon theology is a narrative theology, doing Mormon theology is by definition doing narrative theology. My fear, however, is that a theology which claims to be representative of a tradition cannot neglect its roots.

I should also probably point out that my personal preferences are more in line with the a-theological position; although I take such a stance more for pragmatic reasons than a  desire to accurately describe Mormonism. In other words I think an a-theological position allows for a larger diversity of opinions, which I tend to value in these matters.

That said there is a problem with defining Mormonism as a-theological. Such a description marginalizes this early systematic impulse.

I’m interested in other’s thoughts. Is my analysis correct? Can a-theological/narrative theological theories account for the discontinuity between past and present “Mormon theology”? And, perhaps more broadly speaking, is it a problem that we do not have a consistent theology? Are we theologically challenged?

  • http://www.smallsimple.wordpress.com Eric Nielson

    Allow me to make a naive comment…

    I am not sure that everyone would agree that there has been a significant discontinuity between past and present Mormon theology. I likely fall in this camp.

    I think most members would consider Mormonism to be revelation/scripture based, and thus narrative. This does provide some flexibility, which is good.

    So, while I do agree that as a whole Mormons are theologically challenged, I think you may have to be more specific about what discontinuities you see, and if this really amounts to a significant thing.

  • Nitsav

    I suspect the Lectures represented a way of legitimating the Church in some sense. Churches have creeds and theology? Well, so do we. I see a weak parallel in terms of architecture; Established churches have church buildings. Once the Church builds an actual chapel somewhere instead of renting a house or a floor, it seems that much more established and legitimate.

  • smallaxe

    So, while I do agree that as a whole Mormons are theologically challenged, I think you may have to be more specific about what discontinuities you see, and if this really amounts to a significant thing.

    I guess the easiest example of a discontinuity would be the fact that the early leaders of the Church, including the prophet, engaged in attempts such as the Lectures on Faith to create a “theology” for the Church. I don’t think this parallels anything done by the leadership of the Church in over 75 years (although perhaps McConkie could be argued to take such an approach). IMO this at least partially represents a trend to move away from a ‘systematic’ approach in doing theology, to a more “we await further revelation” approach, which is more characteristic of a narrative theology. Do you not see an discontinuity between the Lectures on Faith and anything done by contemporary apostles/prophets? (Not that there aren’t continuities as well).

  • CEF

    Hello smallaxe,

    It seems that the general consensus on the blogs, it that it is a good thing that we do not have a systematic theology in the Church. It would not leave room for further revelation. I can understand that, but what does that do to such questions as, are we saved/justified by faith or by works? Without some kind of system to answer such questions, I think we are left to wallow around in the mire much too long.

  • http://priesthood.churchofenoch.org Jeff Day

    The most interesting theological concept in the Lectures on Faith, in contrast to today’s theology is this: The Holy Spirit is the mind of the Father and of the Son. The lectures really almost station the Spirit as the highest or at least the innermost being of the Godhead.

    Mormonism, a-theological? Maybe in verbage but not in principle. Try living outside the established neo-orthodoxy for any length of time (without hiding it) and in my experience at least, people will quickly try to usher you back into the neo-orthodoxy. I found that even holding the older, traditional Jehovah-Father view brought on several attempts to persuade me otherwise, or rather, any mention in conflict with the Jehovah-Christ view was treated as a grave error, or as teaching contrary to and not-sustaining the Prophet, etc. Orthodoxy is enforced in the Church, albeit through a complex and non-written system.

  • smallaxe

    Hi CEF,

    It seems that the general consensus on the blogs, it that it is a good thing that we do not have a systematic theology in the Church. It would not leave room for further revelation. I can understand that, but what does that do to such questions as, are we saved/justified by faith or by works? Without some kind of system to answer such questions, I think we are left to wallow around in the mire much too long.

    I think we should probably differentiate between “systematic” in the technical sense and “systematic” in the non-technical sense. When talked about in relation to theology, the former usually means something attempted in the work of Thomas Aquinas or Rriedrich Schleiermacher. Namely, something complete and capable of being described by the tools of rationality. The latter, however, usually means something such as “make sense” (as in the gospel should make sense of how faith and works relate to each other). I think everyone agrees with the latter claim; but may not agree that we should have a systematic theology in the technical sense. IMO, however, the early Church seemed more open to systematic theology in the more technical sense; and I do not see proponents of an a-theological position in contemporary Mormondom reconciling this discontinuity.

  • smallaxe

    Mormonism, a-theological? Maybe in verbage but not in principle.

    A lack of theology does not necessarily mean that there are no regulations in place for boundary maintenance. Faulconer, in the piece I link too, attributes this to an orthopraxy; but as you mention it also occurs in regard to “doctrine”. I know there have been several discussions around here as to what constitutes Mormon “doctrine”. Here’s something helpful in that front: http://ericsonhome.net/loyd/pdfs/problems.pdf

  • http://zelophehadsdaughters.com ZD Lynnette

    This is a fascinating question. I’ve often wondered why earlier church leaders were comfortable doing what they referred to as “theology,” whereas now the notion of theological work is often framed as being antithetical to continuing revelation. Thinkers like B.H. Roberts, as you note, didn’t seem too concerned that continuing revelation might undermine their projects. And the example of the Lectures on Faith is particularly interesting, I think, given that early church members actually had a lot more continuing revelation (in the sense of new revelation added to the canon) than we do now–so if continuing revelation does in fact discredit theology, one would think those early Saints would have been more concerned about it than we are now.

    My guess would be that the shift has more to do with the tendency of mid-20th Mormonism to turn away from “worldly” scholarship in general–a category which included academic theological work–than anything inherent in the nature of church teachings. But that’s a really good question about whether we can dismiss systematic theology without dismissing our roots. Like most contemporary systematic theologians, I’m rather skeptical of systematic theology in the classic sense of tying everything together into a grand scheme. But it does seem that we need to reckon with what it means that our tradition has attempted such projects in the past. (Which is of course also an issue for Christianity more generally.) If nothing else, it might give us some perspective on the ways in which we do theology now, and the extent to which contemporary ways of approaching doctrine might be tied to particular cultural assumptions.

  • smallaxe

    Yeah. I must be doing something right if I can get Lynette to comment.

    I think you make a good point about the early Church seeming more open to doing theology despite the (potentially) greater realization of an open canon.

    the extent to which contemporary ways of approaching doctrine might be tied to particular cultural assumptions

    I have more respect for those who own up to “making it up” (i.e., being enmeshed in cultural assumptions), or those who can substantiate the continuities; as opposed to those who lack such an explanation and presume continuity.

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