Is Mormon Theology Masturbatory?

Adam Miller’s recent post at Times and Seasons concerns me. The issue that Miller’s post seems to be wrestling with is why Mormon theology should be done in an academic context, rather than an institutional context. After all, no one ever asked him to do what he does, so then why does he do it? The presumption implicit in the question is that only things that the institution deigns to ask for are self-evidently necessary, so one must justify doing what is not asked. In defense of what he does, he characterizes the practice of Mormon academic theology as a “diversion,” “gratuitous,” “unnecessary,” done “for its own sake,” a sort of onanistic act that denies its responsibility toward its partner. He depicts the theologian as the fetishistic “pack rat” who scours texts and objects for the perverse sources of his own “pleasure,” an act that culminates in a “satisfyingly solid thump.” Such an act is done in relative privacy, for the “joy” of the theologian alone.

Miller admits that this theology does actually do something, but his view of the effect of theology is constrained. Indeed, an actual productive intercourse is not the primary goal, only a kind of unintended result in perhaps an unsafe moment. Theology is best done for other theologians, a kind of (consensual) mutual masturbation among professionals. It is the kind of activity that those not invited to the prom of official church discourse might do in somebody’s bedroom while they fantasize about what it must be like at the prom, and all they cool stuff they would do if they got invited. Maybe someone will notice them, and next year will get an invite (or at least borrow an outfit without giving credit!).

I have a different view of the necessity of academic Mormon theology. It is not done because someone asks, or even in spite of being asked to do it. It is done because it is necessary to be done. It’s necessity derives not from a need for systemization, or a sense of order that must be imposed on chaos. Rather, it is necessary because theology actually is important for how people see the world, how they see other people, how they behave in their families and communities, how they make decisions about justice, and God’s relation to the world. Theology informs the shape of our communities, including who is excluded from them and why, and who bears social burdens more than others. Theology is how we treat our spouse as a partner, what kind of spouse we aspire to be, and the reason we seek a spouse to begin with. Theology is politics. And most importantly, theology is life and death for gays and lesbians. Anyone who thinks theology is done for it’s own sake, for a select group of professionals in somebody’s bedroom, isn’t doing it right.

This doesn’t meant that theology needs to be popularized, that it cant be a rigorous conversation. On the contrary, it must be rigorous above all else! Rather, it means that theology must be deeply conscientious about it’s purpose. It means that it must have a conscience. If it is done only to make something “unnecessarily complex” then it is simply unnecessary. It should make the simple complex because there is no simple, only the complex, and it’s job is to insist on that. It should challenge complacency, simplistic orthodoxy, and the idea that it is unnecessary because “we already know.” Theology has no greater responsibility than to demonstrate it’s own necessity as a challenge. Academic theology is important because it offers a more expansive tool kit to make that happen, and a vocabulary that can illuminate not only the complexity of the apparently simplistic, but the real harm that the simplistic can do to people.

At the best parts, Miller’s post articulates a piece of this vision of theology’s need and role as a challenge:

“Good theology forces detours that divert us from our stated goals and prompt us to visit places and include people that would otherwise be left aside. The measure of this strength is charity.

Theological detours are worth only as much charity as they are able to show. They are worth only as many waylaid lives and lost objects as they are able to embrace. “

This charity of inclusion and embrace in the theological act is not, as Miller says, ”itself always gratuitous: charity is charity because it does what it doesn’t have to do.” On the contrary, charity is the highest of duties, the most important of virtues, and that which is needed above all else. If the goal and purpose of theology is a more charitable, more inclusive, more just understanding of both the divine and the human practice, there is nothing more necessary, and nothing with more productive potential. Let’s not waste it.

  • Clark

    I don’t think that’s actually what he’s grappling with. So while I agree with many of your comments I think it missed the point of what Adam was getting at which is much more of a kind of spiritual meditation. Can I also say I blushed when I saw the post title? I’m surprised it made it through the spam filter.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Clark,
    I think that he thinks that spiritual mediation is what theology is, whatever the problem that he sees that solving. That is the view of theology that I am challenging.

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

    My simple comment is that we are all necessarily theologians. Some admit it, and others do not. Some are better at it than others. But if we have any thought or opinions regarding religion, then it seems to me we are theologians.

  • Michael

    TT,

    Thank you so much for this post. I commented on Adam’s post over at the Times and Seasons because I felt he was minimizing the importance of theology in shaping our worldview, giving order to our mortal probation, and providing higher purpose to our existence. I got the sense he was mocking the pursuit of theology as a useless exercise.

    I also want to thank you for pointing out the fact that theology IS life or death for gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints.

    It is my opinion that there is a preference by Latter-day Saints to keep their personal theology boxes as small and as simple as possible. Too much thought and too much uncertainty is uncomfortable for them. As long as one fits the narrow box as it is currently defined by the Church (i.e. heterosexual, married, middle class nuclear family with upwardly mobile aspirations seeking to create an eternal posterity) it is possible to ignore the unconventional or misfit situations. However, as a gay Christian living the law of celibacy and having no place defined for me in the eternities without a major re-programming of my basic sense of being, theology (whether institutional or academic) becomes of paramount importance. Parsing the words of the scriptures, prophets, and, above all, the Saviour becomes crucial.

  • http://www.approachingjustice.wordpress.com Chris H.

    “I have a different view of the necessity of academic Mormon theology. It is not done because someone asks, or even in spite of being asked to do it. It is done because it is necessary to be done. It’s necessity derives not from a need for systemization, or a sense of order that must be imposed on chaos. Rather, it is necessary because theology actually is important for how people see the world, how they see other people, how they behave in their families and communities, how they make decisions about justice, and God’s relation to the world. Theology informs the shape of our communities, including who is excluded from them and why, and who bears social burdens more than others. Theology is how we treat our spouse as a partner, what kind of spouse we aspire to be, and the reason we seek a spouse to begin with. Theology is politics. And most importantly, theology is life and death for gays and lesbians. Anyone who thinks theology is done for it’s own sake, for a select group of professionals in somebody’s bedroom, isn’t doing it right.”

    This has inspired me and given my hope. I may laminate it and pass it out during my next EQ lesson.

  • http://www.approachingjustice.wordpress.com Chris H.

    I have been wondering if there is a sort of divide between analytical and more continental approaches to theology. Could this explain differences between Adam’s approach and that of TT?

  • http://www.linescratchers.com/ Syphax

    I’m curious about the search engine traffic that this post will receive.

  • SmallAxe

    If I’m reading Adam’s post properly, it seems to be done in the vein of feeling comfortable with the space provided by the institution of the Church for doing what he’s calling academic theology.

    Not knowing him, my sense is that he’s inclined to see theolgy as important work, but wants to square that with the way the Church views his important work. Which, in the end, is the kind of a thing that adds flavor to life, but is not to be taken as the essence of life.

    I read his post as a kind of apologetic piece for the Church’s take on theology.

  • Michael

    SmallAxe,

    But the Church does not have a take on theology other than to insist it is not necessary to create one for the Restoration. That is part of the problem. When academics step in to fill the large void, it leads to charges of stepping out of bounds and injecting the philosophies of men into the doctrine.

    The Church seems intent on not articulating a Restoration Theology and also not allowing anyone else to articulate one.

  • Adam Miller

    To be honest, my feelings are hurt a bit. But it’s a nice post. What does it mean if I mostly agree with it?

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Adam,
    I truly apologize for hurting your feelings. You should know that it was not at all my intention! I actually really like what I know of your work, even if we are interested in slightly different theological conversations. I was trying to be provocative and a bit funny. And I don’t doubt at all that you and I are in substantial agreement. It may even be that I have misunderstood you as Clark suggests, or understood your description of theology in a context in which it wasnt meant. I think we are both engaged in an apologia for Mormon theology, and the block quote of yours that I use above expresses my point about the value of theology perfectly (which is why I quote it!). I think where we disagree, if at all, is whether there is a “need” for such an activity, or perhaps how need is defined, or even who gets to define it.

  • Robert C.

    TT, I think you missed the double entendre embedded in Adam’s use of the term “gratuitous”—meaning rooted in grace.

    Beauty and love are essentially gratuitous. So, for theology to be worth anything, it must be gratuitous, and therefore a diversion from the kind of serious work that all works-obsessed doctrines are so instrumentally beholden to….

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Robert, I think you are right that I missed the intended play on words. I’m still not sure that I agree with that formulation either, however.

  • Robert C.

    TT, a question your post has got me wondering about: what is the essential difference between masturbation and sacred sexual acts? I’m thinking that, first, sacred sex is licit rather than illicit and, second, sacred sex is communal not private. On this second point, I think it’s crucial that Rude Goldberg machines become public spectacles—museums and fairs are perhaps the best settings for enjoying them. Similarly, I think if theology becomes private and merely academic, then it’s masturbatory. But, if it’s enjoyed communally, then it’s delightful. (I say all of this in what I think is a spirit of agreement to your post—and, hence, a spirit of gratitude for your having written it….)

  • Clark

    Chris (6), my personal feeling is that the analytic/continental divide is pretty dated at this stage. For one the big trend among a lot of people who once studied Heidegger is Object Oriented Ontology which is really a very different way of doing philosophy and in many ways cuts the divide. For an other you always had figures that seemed to straddle the divide (say Wittgenstein). And finally I just think the divide was always somewhat problematic even as a matter of style. Although heaven knows there are .extreme styles on both sides. (A pseudo-mathamatical styled technical jargon on the analytic and a pseudo-poetic styled technical jargon on the continental often painting with broad strokes)

    I think there definitely is something to Adam’s philosophical background coming out though – and perhaps that why I didn’t find his post off putting. I think underneath it is a kind of tension between play and work/economy as manifest in religion and theology in particular. I’m pretty sympathetic to that view which I’d guess is somewhat influenced from Derrida. (Would you agree Adam?) That said I think you could say the much the same sort of thing from within analytic philosophy.

    Michael (4) It is my opinion that there is a preference by Latter-day Saints to keep their personal theology boxes as small and as simple as possible. Too much thought and too much uncertainty is uncomfortable for them.

    I’m not sure that’s fair at all. I think people do distinguish between what they are sure of versus what they aren’t. But that’s still a pretty big box. Further I just don’t see the evidence people don’t theologize. In fact I’d argue they do it a lot. I think most people don’t like the kind of debates that perhaps many of us here enjoy about theology. And I think for most people theology isn’t that important religiously for them. So why spend so much time on something that isn’t that important? I mean I might love debating whether the KFD entails an infinite regress of divine beings. But honestly does it really matter that much? No. Am I sure about the answer? No.

    Small Axe (8) it seems to be done in the vein of feeling comfortable with the space provided by the institution of the Church for doing what he’s calling academic theology.

    I confess I don’t see that. You seem to suggest it’s a very small space but I’m not sure that’s so. But I suspect that it depends upon what you call theology. For instance I take Pres. Benson’s call to take the Book of Mormon seriously as primarily a call to do careful theology of the text. That happened and, I’d argue, has been pretty transformative within the Church. A lot of that came out of academic considerations. (Some admittedly more apologetic, but some more purely theological such as the concern with Grace which I think Adam’s writings are a part of even though Robert Millet is probably the best known in that area)

    Admittedly much of theology in practical areas is insignificant. But in other areas it can have more practical effects. (And, while I know apologetics has a bad rep at most blogs I’d argue that it’s actually done a pretty important job of providing some people a space to grow their testimony)

  • Chad R.

    Robert C. (14): TT, a question your post has got me wondering about: what is the essential difference between masturbation and sacred sexual acts? I’m thinking that, first, sacred sex is licit rather than illicit and, second, sacred sex is communal not private. On this second point, I think it’s crucial that Rude Goldberg machines become public spectacles—museums and fairs are perhaps the best settings for enjoying them. Similarly, I think if theology becomes private and merely academic, then it’s masturbatory. But, if it’s enjoyed communally, then it’s delightful.

    But is masturbation always sinful & illicit? Done in conjunction with porn, yes, but what if you have a wife who encourages you to indulge in non-porn masturbation because she is tired or ill or recovering from a medical procedure, and she loves you and cares for your pleasure and does not want you to suffer too long without her?

    And given that thought, what does that say about “Masturbatory Theology”? Is it not possible to ponder these things, even if they are completely unnecessary for salvation, all on one’s own and still be enlightened?

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Chad, Robert, et al.,
    While the masturbation metaphor is entirely my own fault, let’s not stretch it too far. I was playing on common accusations against theoretical work as “mental masturbation,” but I am not sure that there is really anything super profound about this particular metaphor for revealing the issue at hand (pun unintended).

  • Robert C.

    Chad, I would take the presence of your wife (and the connotations of “wife” including the covenantal role with deeply spiritual connotations) as an important introduction of community into what is otherwise a “private” affair (where I mean “private” in the sense of being disjointed from communal goods, including posterity, in this life or beyond). So, your example could count as a community practice in a way that private activities don’t (though I’m not saying I endorse your example, for the record!).

    But my larger point is that academic theology is problematic as long as it remains a kind of private orgy that does not somehow tie itself to the common/communal good, though it is imperative that the common good is not reduced to “productive uses”: Rude Goldberg machines might not be all that useful or efficiently productive, but their gratuitous elegance, beauty, brilliance, etc. can all be counted toward the common good in important ways (hence, these machinations can be revealed and celebrated in ways that socially harmful or self-destructive activities cannot—and I believe some forms of elitist private theologizing can indeed be harmful in terms of pride, power-relations, etc.).

  • Chad R.

    And I’m not saying my example is anything more than academic!

    Thank you, TT and Robert for your responses. I do believe that Theology, like Science, or Art, should be for the betterment of all, or else what is it for? But real study, on any subject, can only ever take place in private.

  • SmallAxe

    @ Clark (and Michael too). My previous post wasn’t meant to express my view, but my understanding of Adam’s view. In that conversation he defines theology quite narrowly, and states:

    The edges may be a bit blurry and what I’ve said may apply to other and broader things, but for now I’m just looking to make sense of what I’m doing when I write a journal article about Mormonism or give a paper at a professional conference.

    If there is room for this kind of thing in Mormonism, what kind of room is there? And why? If I find this work “important” to me in some sense, what kind of important does it have and why is the Church still right to find that work inconsequential to its own mission?

  • oudenos

    “While the masturbation metaphor is entirely my own fault, let’s not stretch it too far.”

    TT, you magnificent perv. The last clause in this line is brilliant. The more so if it was subconsciously done.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    I must confess that I have read a lot of what is very generally accepted as pretty darn good theology. But I confess that I just don’t understand what Adam was getting at all.

  • http://thepierianspring.wordpress.com/ aquinas

    I’m beginning to think the real problem is a communication problem between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy. Mormon theological discourse has its own problems with whether there is such a thing as Mormon theology or whether its dangerous or whether we should do it at all, or apologizing to members or to the Church for doing it. On top of this, however, apparently, it just so happens that the individuals involved in a nascent Mormon theological discourse are from these two different philosophical traditions that are known for not really understanding one another, and not really engaging in dialogue with each other. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

  • http://Blakeostlet.com Blake

    It’s ok Aquinas, I don’t know what masterbatory means either.

  • http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/ BHodges

    hahaha #24!

    From a guy who likes theology but isn’t so brilliant, here are a few takeaways I took away so far:

    -Adam did come across as having anxiety about his desire to practice theology. Part of it felt like he was helping himself feel better about writing great stuff that gets ignored compared to the popcrap at Deseret Book. This could be way off, it was just my initial impression.

    -I liked Adam’s tying of theology to charity. And TT hits on this as well (oh man. the puns write themselves.) Considering the effect one’s work has on others is important, I believe.

    -I also agree on the point that theology, whether academic or devotional, is important, and can help draw us closer or further from God, hence its importance in my view.

  • Clark

    Aquinas (23), I think it undeniable that Adam’s excellent series the past months at T&S is highly informed by more Continental style of philosophy. Given that much of it was commentary on works by Jim Faulconer, who is a well known Heidegger scholar at BYU, this shouldn’t be too surprising. That said I’m not sure one need know anything about Continental philosophy to enjoy his posts. But there undoubtedly will be nuance that people more familiar with that style of philosophy and those doing Mormon “theology” from that tradition will pick up.

    There’s actually a mailing list, LDS-Herm, focused on that style of philosophizing and theologizing. Over at Feast Upon the Word I think you’ll find many of the main contributors also come out of that tradition (and regularly contribute to LDS-Herm)

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    Clark: Us “analytic types” haven’t been invited to the discussion on LDS-Herm — and we (read “I”_ probably couldn’t contribute much that would speak them anyway.

  • http://feastuponthewordblog.org Joe Spencer

    For what it’s worth, there are no invitations to LDS-Herm. Those interested come asking.

    Also for what it’s worth, I think any appeal to a continental/analytic split here is worth little. Adam Miller unmistakably has roots in continental thought, but the spirit of this post hails from much farther east than Continental Europe.

    And once more for what it’s worth, I think Robert C. has nailed the issue with his clarification of “gratuitous.” I worry that TT’s take on theology is indeed a kind of works-righteousness approach to the task—too concerned for ends and aims, too focused on getting somewhere specific, too confident about what it’s doing. At the same time, I worry that Adam Miller’s take on theology is, rather than actually gratuitous, more a reaction against works-righteousness. The crucial point is to sort out exactly how a theology might be oriented by grace.

    In a word, TT assumes a telos in order to keep theology oriented (it aims at “charity”), and Adam Miller gets rid of the telos and so leaves theology disoriented (something he undertakes in the name of “charity”), but neither approach it seems to me quite captures the task of theology—which is oriented (against Adam Miller), but to something other than a telos (against TT). Theology doesn’t aim at charity, nor does it avoid aims because of charity. Its charity is, I think, something else, a characteristic of its style rather than the motivation that gets it going.

    What gets theology going? What orients it, and from where (if what orients it is not a telos)? An event—in the case of Mormon theology, the event(s) of the Restoration. Those events send the theologian on an aleatory journey that could end up absolutely anywhere, a missionary journey that must craft its message anew every moment, always fighting against every temptation to narrow the message and compromise charity.

    In this sense, it seems to me, every Latter-day Saint who believes is (called to be) a theologian. The more faithful one is, the more a theologian she becomes.

    The good theologian, attuned to this particular moment of the theological journey, will always be ready (and happy!) to throw away every theological construction so far constructed as so much Thomist straw—not because theology is just a diversion, but because the task of the moment leads another way, because charity calls her in a different theological direction, because she hopes but without desperation for a better world. TT is right: theology is serious. But it is serious about the task to which it has been called, not about the Other. And Adam Miller is right: theology is not-serious. But it is not-serious about particular theological constructions, not about the task of theology as such.

    Such, at any rate, is my conception of all this. Only in this sense can theology become genuinely gratuitous—that is, oriented by the grace of an event I never asked for.

    I’ll have much more to say about all this soon over at the Feast blog. I was about halfway through a lengthy post on the nature of theology when I became aware of all this. I’ll be finishing it soon….

  • http://www.approachingjustice.wordpress.com Chris H.

    I have always read TT (and I always read TT) to mean that charity (and more importantly ethically approaches) is the means to conducting theology…not the the aim or ends.

  • Clark

    Blake (27), I don’t think you need be invited. I think though the aim was to avoid the meltdown that happened at LDS-Phil and largely killed it. (Seriously if you have archives check out how excellent discussion there was in the 90′s)

    You’re familiar with Levinas and company so I’m sure you’d enjoy it. If you want to join lds-herm just go to google groups, search for it, and click the join button. (The link is to the direct lds-herm page) Note you have to have a gmail account to join. You can also read the posts online there if you wish instead of subscribing via mail.

  • http://thepierianspring.wordpress.com/ aquinas

    Joe, I appreciate you weighing into the discussion. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on the subject.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    Thanks for the heads up Joe and Clark. I’ve read the LDS-Herm with interest, but always as an outsider. The posts and comments are almost always intelligent and charitable — and that is a rare thing for blogs. The continental tradition seems very strong at LDS-Herm. However, I feel very strong in Buber and Levinas (at one point I thought I would write a commentary on Buber’s thought but decided it was bigger than I wanted to chew off).

    I believe theology is just our best attempt to orient ourselves in relation to the tradition and specifically to what has been revealed in our tradition. I think that Kierkegaard was right on when he makes a vast and broad distinction between a philosopher and an apostle. Although everything I write is totally inspired and true {grin — please take that with a grain of salt} it would be a bit much to lay claim to authority of an apostle.

    However, I admit that my every effort is to persuade and disclose to others why I love the texts and the gospel so much. I want them to love and appreciate what is like breath of life to me that feels like the sweet presence of a warm embrace by a love greater than words can express.


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