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?