The Danger of Theology

Over at his blog, Tarik LaCour has an interesting post on Mormon theology. The actual focus is a review of the book Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints. In the process of the review he mentions how Mormon theology is underdeveloped. I think that’s true, but I’m not sure a systematic theology such as our friends in mainstream Christianity have, is necessarily a good model. Allow me to quote Tarik:

As a practicing Latter-day Saint who is trained in philosophy and theology, I think you can make a pretty good case that Mormons fall under the Christian umbrella, but I also believe Mormon theology can be better developed. We would do well to remember that Christians have had 2,000 years to develop their theology while Mormons have had less than 200 years; it is not logical to expect the same amount of content in 10% of the time. However, Mormons should do better at developing their theology and encouraging members to attend seminaries (not the LDS seminary) and learn how theology is done. We do have some good theologians in Mormonism (David Paulsen, Blake Ostler, Robert Boylan, Adam Miller, Joseph Spencer), but we will need more in years ahead.

While I certainly agree our theology is woefully underdeveloped, I worry about mainstream Christianity as the model. Part of the reason for that is that theology quickly became dogma in historic Christianity. That is theological ideas inferred from scripture became dogma that then came to trump scripture. (Think of the doctrine of the Trinity for an example of this) Theology inexorably comes to have an inappropriate authority of its own.

Now not all theologians necessarily push a systematic theology that leads to dogma. For instance Adam Miller has pushed quite hard against such a notion.[1] We should recognize a theology that fundamentally accepts the open somewhat ambiguous nature of how we should read our authoritative texts. Simultaneously theology must take seriously the idea of continuing revelation that may overrule established dogmas. That is any theology to be a Mormon theology must be forever tentative. In a way theology ought be seen analogous to the way scientific theories are tentative. They’re always just a single experiment away from a scientist showing they are wrong or at least limited.

When we look at how Mormon theology has developed historically we can see this danger of dogma arising from theology. Orson Pratt, arguably the best known systemizer of Mormon Theology, found many of his ideas condemned by Brigham Young. While some of his theological foundations seemed persuasive at the time, they now seem naive or difficult to accept.[2] Even theology that attempted to stay true to recent prophetic statements, like Bruce R. McConkie, found people appealing to his systematic writings rather than the more ambiguous scriptures. Some also came to privilege the statements of some general authorities, like McConkie, above others. We might say that none of these things are necessarily consequences of theology. Yet it’s interesting that these problems happened in early Christianity.

Augustine inexorably shaped the path of Christianity when he applied platonic assumptions about its foundations. While he modified his platonism it still (somewhat like Orson Pratt) dominated how he read scripture. From a contemporary Mormon perspective those assumptions were fundamentally wrong and led Christianity quite astray. Other figures did the same thing.

What I think we need isn’t a developed theology so much as people raising theological questions and potential interpretations. That is less a systematic theology than becoming aware of theological possibilities. That in turn prepares a place for future revelation which can dismiss certain theological possibilities. Yet such a theology requires a strong distrust of theology to avoid falling into dogmas. In many ways not having a developed theology ought be the realistic goal of any Mormon theology. So let’s do theology while being deeply suspicious of theology and especially any developed theology.


[1] I’ve been doing a reading club of Adam Miller’s recent theology book Future Mormon. While it’s a critical interaction with Adam’s book, Adam’s own views on theology most likely come closest to my own. Unfortunately time commitments with work and family have meant I’ve not been able to post weekly as I’d planned. I hope to get a new post out soon though.

[2] Orson Pratt thought all that existed was matter. The foundation of matter were indivisible atoms of intelligence. Unfortunately his arguments for these foundations were found in scripture and appear extremely problematic today. Much of his theology arose out of these foundations.

22 comments for “The Danger of Theology

  1. “What I think we need isn’t a developed theology so much as people raising theological questions and potential interpretations. That is less a systematic theology than becoming aware of theological possibilities. That in turn prepares a place for future revelation which can dismiss certain theological possibilities. Yet such a theology requires a strong distrust of theology to avoid falling into dogmas. In many ways not having a developed theology ought be the realistic goal of theology.”

    I find my own thoughts aligning with this argument. I have faith in the Book of Mormon as the most sufficient guide to understanding and integrating the gospel of Jesus Christ into human life. However, that starts the path; it doesn’t necessarily complete it.

    In addition, i view the path of faith in the Christ to be intensely personal, so my exact path is not the path for another to take; that person must follow their personal path. This means that there is theology of a kind in the rod of iron, but I take hold of that rod out of my free will; I am not manacled to that rod.

    By the same token, I am not manacled to others on the path, nor are they to me. Our effort on the path is necessarily voluntary, “without compulsary means,” or the effort will not help us grow, to “self-actualize,” as I believe Father wants for us.

    Clark Goble, thank you for this post, and the opportunity to consider and comment.

  2. Please, save us from theologians! I don’t want a systematic Mormon theology developed by theologians — rather, I prefer our system of councils and counselors and Priesthood quorums and so forth. A humble man who lives the Gospel will know more of the matters of God than anyone who approaches it from an academic or theological perspective. Save us from theologians!

  3. “theology (n.)
    mid-14c., “the science of religion, study of God and his relationship to humanity,” from Old French theologie “philosophical study of Christian doctrine; Scripture” (14c.), from Latin theologia, from Greek theologia “an account of the gods,” from theologos “one discoursing on the gods,” ”

    Based on this definition, all members of the LDS church are potential theologists. In previous religions, theology was a scholastic exercise, usually confined to professional clergy as scholastic and apostolic and rhetoric became woven together. The LDS church’s “professional clergy” are largely limited to apostles and some other general authorities, with the majority of church leadership being volunteers.

    I realize members of the LDS church understand this, so please forgive the reminder. LDS apologists necessarily fit the above definition also, as do missionaries. Basically anyone who has an opinion about God and humans, and shares that opinion, qualifies as a theologian. However, most of us in the LDS church do not make any kind of living on sharing our opinions, so we’re lay theologians. Perhaps this is part of what makes us unique as a church; there is demonstrated room for different viewpoints, as long as such fairly square with church doctrine and are not directly critical of the church.

  4. I don’t think that developed theology is a luxury that you can afford over two thousand years. I think it’s a necessity if you want to survive through two thousand years. Language and culture change over centuries, and maintaining a gospel through the changes from ancient Rome to the internet requires deep translation. You can’t translate word-for-word. You need to develop a theory of what the source text essentially means, and then re-express that in the new language. That means articulating a coherent theology.

    The Scriptures are too long to count as a theory. They’re a body of data, taken by many different people in different circumstances. Theology is integrating all that data into a coherent theory. You need to read all the blind men’s accounts, describing walls and spears and trees and snakes and ropes and fans … and assemble the elephant. The resulting theory is not a fact; it can be overthrown; but it’s more than a whimsical notion. Constructing the theory can change how you think about the data, lifting some details into foundational status and relegating others to obscurity. You can call that establishing dogma; you could also call it continuing revelation.

    Of course Mormons can handle that differently from other Christians if they want. Mormons sometimes seem, however, to proclaim with one breath that they sustain a single living Prophet as the sole source of new revelation, and with the next to boast of how egalitarian their church is in letting every member be their own amateur theologian—as if Mormonism were unique in somehow managing to combine authority with innovation. On the contrary, every church that has lasted has found some way of doing that, and the Mormon way is just one approach.

    The mainstream Christian way, of allowing theologians to persuade the general church about how to understand their religion, puts a middle layer between the authority of popes and confessions, and the conscience of individual believers. So if theology in religion is like theory in science, I also think it’s like “civil society” in culture, a layer between the individual and the state. A healthy culture needs it. It’s a strength, not a danger.

  5. Jerry, good apologetics is intensely theological. Indeed there have been pretty significant changes in how Mormons read scripture on the basis of theological arguments made in the 80’s and 90’s. While we can’t neglect Pres. Benson’s talk about the Book of Mormon, by and large we took our scriptures superficially before the 90’s.

    I’d add that while I think it can be pushed to far, there’s definitely a sense in which Mormonism is far less concerned with right belief so much as right behavior. Jim Faulconer in particular has written quite a few things about how the Church is atheological. I don’t think that’s correct but he’s definitely correct in that theology isn’t a major concern. That’s not to say theology isn’t important and useful. The original post isn’t me disparaging theology so much as warning about how we ought do theoligy.

  6. Theology is a way to weaponize religion. If you have a theology you have a means by which you can test orthodoxy. The non-orthodox get the inquisition. Anyway the D&C indicates that theology is an ever-changing exercise as we obtain more knowledge. I am on God’s side in this argument.

  7. Clark,

    I think your comment about how we read scripture changed also applies to biblical scholarship overall. I may have made this point elsewhere, but Elder McConkie was queried about his sources when he wrote the Mortal Messiah. He said that while he wrote (the 70s), most contemporary biblical scholarship lacked a “faith basis”. I believe that was so then, but it is certainly not the case now, for both Old and New Testament scholars. Sure, there are those that are more humanist or secular in nature, but there is also high quality scholarship from believing scholars. We are still growing in that area. Theology is one of those areas.

  8. I think the academic work on “group agents” is pretty informative here. According to this line of thought, group agents become become reform resistant precisely because they are seen by their members to sway due to member input while always returning back to a core morality (perhaps like atheology or theological questioning). The core morality need not be truly fixed, despite the fact that group members should interpret it as such. This happens via slow change rates or fuzzy data points that can easily be re-interpreted as inadequate insight. This leads to the conclusion that groups are changeable on the order of a generation or so.

    Too much fixation is just as bad as too little.

    So what about long-lived world religions?

    Chances are they changed at this frequency too. Hadiths and systemic theologies pin things down, but when you add in multi-cultural expansion, was it true pinning, or more balancing? I suspect the latter, but that is just a hunch – I always favour homeostasis arguments in terms of human proclivities.

    I suspect in todays rapidly changing world where real or perceived dissonances quickly and forcefully propagate, flexibility may be a more adaptive solution than fixation. My guess is that you might need a sense of stability and conservancy (say clear superficial in-group demarkers on some rather innocuous items like dietary and clothing restrictions) but generation-level ideological fluidity. Thus, you’re never too out-of-step with society, but you also don’t lose your adaptive group dynamics. Ideas can bounce around within the range accomodateable by group-agents. In group-markers provide a sense of rigor and trustworthiness.

    Judaism and old Christianity seemed to play this right. Mormonism seems equally fit. I’m not sure about Eastern religions. I just don’t know that much about them.

  9. We cannot have a systematic theology simply because we do not have clearly defined doctrine and indeed Joseph himself eschewed doctrine and creeds. What we do have is scriptural hermeneutics. Each time I read the scriptures I find something “new” and that is the key to hermeneutics- as I personally change, my “doctrine” changes as my understanding deepens. That on an individual level is why this wonderful church which is based on personal progression toward God cannot freeze the process by creating “doctrine”. Depending on the eyes of the individual beholder, systemized theology can be too fundamentalistic, on one side, or on the other side, too symbolic or allegorical. And either way, if it is fixed, it does not allow for individual progression. Once a philosophical theory is adopted as “doctrine” there can be no further development. We see that in sectarian Christianity with its adoption of a “consubstantial” Trinity and in Catholicism with Transubstantiation- both based on a theology of Substance which is now seen as philosophically untenable in many circles. But what we Mormons can do is develop a kind of philosophy of religion which better defines this process AS a process of development. And so we see a trend toward process theology among Mormon theologians. I see Mormon theology developing more as a kind of theology of language and scriptural interpretation than anything else. Defining how we understand scriptures and what we understand scriptures to be, is of prime importance as I see it.

  10. Mark I’m not sure there’s much of a divide between systematic theology and scriptural hermeneutics. To the degree we put texts into connection with each other and do broader hermeneutics and seek a degree of consistency behind the texts we’re systematizing. I know some dismiss any systematizing tendency or even ask question of a common reality behind narratives. However I think that’s quite important to do.

    My point is just that we should have a healthy skepticism of what we arrive at. As I see it the only times we’ve had trouble with theology in our history is when we’re treat it as the divine word rather than something parasitic on and secondary to the divine word.

    Terry, I think people dismiss readings too quickly because people aren’t faithful. I agree faith can significantly change how we read. But in general if you dismiss people’s conclusions while ignoring their arguments we’re doing it wrong. We should look carefully at arguments and understand them. Sometimes people are dismissing things because they don’t accept a basic reality of God. But often the arguments are much stronger. (I’m here thinking of arguments for the dating of deuteron-isaiah that depends upon use of Aramaic for example) Overall there are many secular theories people dismissed as “not faithful” which end up being compatible with faith and also can illuminate parts of the Book of Mormon that were long confusing. I’m here thinking of some of Kevin Christiansen’s work on the deuteronomist tradition at the time of Josiah and Jeremiah as it relates to the world of Nephi.

    Chris, I fully agree that in practice theology is used for group maintenance in a way that the theology itself is kind of secondary. You certainly see that historically in say the Council of Nicea onward. Even in our own history the interesting battles between Brigham Young and Orson Pratt over theology or Talmage/Roberts versus Joseph Fielding Smith a few decades later give a good illustration of this. Further while people dismiss the type of systematic theology that JFS & BRM did, it’s worth looking at the issues from a group-identity basis in terms of what was going on socially in the 1930’s. While I don’t think much of their overall approach (although both did have some great insights) in terms of what they were in opposition to, I think their actions make much more sense. (Here thinking of a kind of de-mythologizing tendency that arose out of German Biblical research from 1890 onward) Today we might be more willing to embrace some of the arguments of higher criticism but that’s largely because the social conflict is gone. That is the social and group connection of such ideas is not present so that the theology and hermeneutics can be engaged with in a less political fashion.

  11. Clark, like you say, I think in practice you get cycles of formalization and looseness. Underneath that, different groups tend to have slightly different deterministic currents. External feedback, like secular insights, produces true complexity.

    The key seems to be getting the right amount of feedback without destroying group coherence or your own morale.

    In today’s disintegrating society do you need more or less group coherence? Does your religious group need formalization or looseness? I wonder if church members may be getting set for either:
    -an increase in politicalization (none of the three de-facto parties fully represent us), or,
    -an increase in theological formalization.

    I’ll have to look back over some of that old speculative work I did about Caste Formation in relation to moral looseness… Is systemic philosophy more about elite border control or commoner coherence? If I remember right, it really depended on the trajectory from which things were coming…

  12. Yes, the Church has lots of doctrine but not much theology. Theology helps to bridge gaps between various doctrines, when bridgeable, or identify contradictions between doctrines and offer possible resolutions. Theology helps avoid doctrinal difficulties: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The fine work of the Church History Department and the contributions of LDS historians ought to be a model for how theology can contribute to the Church.

    But you can’t just hire a theologian off the shelf like you can an attorney or an accountant — you have to develop them in-house. You need some theological infrastructure to train and develop theologians, and right now the Church is doing nothing to lay that foundation. If there is $5 million extra tithing lying around, the leadership will buy another ranch in Florida or put another temple in Mexico before they’ll establish an “LDS School of Theology” somewhere. So we will continue to stumble along, doctrinally, until the leadership comes to understand there is a positive role for theology and that the Church suffers for not making any attempt to fill it.

  13. Dave, do you think both the direct and indirect effects of formalized theology are equally beneficial to our system?

    So far the argument seems to be:
    1. Direct effect of having more philosophical questions discussed is beneficial.
    2. Direct effect of academics determining theology is, at best, questionably negative.
    3. Indirect system effects are probably negative. Even a culture of “philosophical questioning” may not be systemically stable.
    4. Indirect effects on group coherence and sustainability are uncertain, but probably more negative than an alternative approach of tight norms & loose doctrine.

    I’m not sure how formal theology schools would go. It’s an intriguing idea.

    My guess is that it would lead to some better philosophical questioning among a small group of people, but has a decent chance of ossifying and producing negative system wide effects (non-egalitarian dynamics, set targets for critics & reactionary god-of-the-gaps dynamics, decrease in net levels of inquiry despite localized increases, etc.)

  14. The way to know doctrine is not through academic theology — it is through doing the will of God. See John 7:17. When one does the will of God, learning occurs through the Holy Ghost as the dews from heaven. See D&C 121:45. The simplest man who loves God and does the will of God will know far more about God than any academic theologian. For this and other reasons shared by some other posters here, please save us from an academic or systemic theology — let’s stay the course with individual learning by the Holy Ghost, here a little and there a little, and let’s apply the largely untapped power of our quorums and councils.

  15. I certainly agree for a variety of reasons. For one I think practice is more fundamental than theory. However that doesn’t mean drawing out theories from our practices is illegitimate of course.

  16. Clark, I understand your concerns. I would argue there is a real opportunity and a great need for us as a church to create a Mormon theology, which bears many of the positive qualities you touch on, while rejecting those we don’t like from traditional Christianity. I actively assert in church discussions that we desperately need a modern theological framework leading to useful theology through which we can more systematically and consistently examine our faith, doctrines and ideas about God.

    I say this because every week at church I feel immersed in folk religion, personal views and truth claims expressed largely through individual, emotional experiences. These moments tell me more about the person teaching and less about what it means to be a Mormon. While I often value the former, I am desperate for the later.

    I see all kinds of practical applications for an articulated theology as well. For example, wouldn’t good theology help bring better consistency to decisions local leaders make in disciplinary councils? Wouldn’t good theology lessen the phenomenon of local “leader roulette”? Wouldn’t a theology underpinned by a healthy dialectic among Mormon theologians help us better understand current issues like gay marriage? And while history has so much to offer when it comes to understanding the events of the first vision or the translation of the Book of Mormon, for example, wouldn’t a disciplined theology help us to better know why that history is important and what it means to Mormon faith?

    It seems to me the need for a theology has never been greater. Defining the philosophical and faith inputs an ideal system of Mormon theology ought to possess should to be aggressively explored and promoted, in my opinion

  17. I’m far more sympathetic to folk traditions than most. Not because they are inherently trustworthy. Clearly a strong element in them are pushing other people’s experiences into a more faith supporting often exaggerated fashion. (Think the stories of the seagulls in Utah versus the reality) However they also capture in a strong fashion the lived experience of people and thus can indicate types of experiences we need to take seriously theologically. That is if we think the spirit is really working on people then that will manifest in our folk traditions. It’s just that figuring out what’s the spirit and what’s exaggeration is non-trivial.

    As for theology, my point ultimately is that we need to be doing theology but simultaneously we need to be very skeptical of the theology we do. If there was a single theology we work off of then I think that quickly turns into destructive dogma. Theology by its very nature is speculative and we ought recognize it as such.

  18. I second that Clark. I think the danger of technocratic traps is very high. While individualistically biased approaches fall into the folk-based cognitive traps you mention, they do keep the system grounded.

    In many ways this mirrors the debates around popular democracy vs. limited (maybe elite biased) democracy.

    While folk or laity biased approaches may be “inefficient” and have their own pitfalls, evolutionary thinking would suggest they are less “risky”. They work better than more organized approaches almost all the time except during the rare moments where the landscape is rich enough to sustain groups’ transitions to higher levels of organization. While our landscape is priming the world for more cosmopolitanism, broad based clawbacks suggest we just aren’t there yet (despite utopian wishes otherwise).

    I’d also suggest that once societies are ready to stabilize around the next cosmopolitan plateau (a higher level of group selection) the need for religion will be much less. At that point, for most populations, I suspect religion will probably slip into the type of role it plays in secular Europe: basically a link to a cultural association or heritage. As an example, cultural heritage in Canada occupies the type of role I imagine. You celebrate your culture, keep your connections, and participate in various rituals or routines, and while it may bias your morality and political decisions, it really takes the back seat to secular feedback and “individual preferences” (which to my mind at least are often post facto rationalizations of group feedback…).

  19. I agree with you that mainstream Christianity shouldn’t be our model for theology. For me, the Joseph Smith’s model that Terryl Givens explained in “Wrestling with the Angel” is unique, and I hope is more widely acknowledged in Mormonism:

    “Smith believed himself to be an oracle of God, subject to moments of heavenly encounter and the pure flow of inspiration. But he also was insatiably eclectic in his borrowings and adaptations, with an adventuresome mind, prone to speculation and fully comfortable with the trial and error of intellectual effort.”

  20. Another great comment from Joseph Spencer in “Perspectives on Mormon Theology”:

    “Theological speculation, contrary to what is often said about it among Latter-day Saints, is anything but so much spinning in the void, anything but asking pointless or unanswerable questions, anything but sensational attention to so-called mysteries. Theological speculation is, rather, an attempt, undertaken in the name of charity, to see what scriptural texts have to teach us and to see what scripture can do in addition to providing grist for the historical mill and confirming doctrine we all already know to be true. To speculate is to hold a mirror up to the scriptures, to allow them to reflect on themselves, to give them something to say to us about their meaning and significance.”

    I think it adds to your comment about being very skeptical of the theology we do. We are allowed to be creative, and see the interpretive range in the scriptures, but also still be grounded.

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