Is Mormon Theology Masturbatory?

Is Mormon Theology Masturbatory? September 27, 2011

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.

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