Saturday, February 17, 2007

Theory of Mormon Theology

There was a discussion about the value of theology that questioned why Latter-day Saints have such a hard time accepting the study of theology. It got me thinking of my own interest in the subject. Surely Mormons dabble in the study of theology more than credit has been given. They just don't know it. Discussing the personal opinions about the Last Days and what the Afterlife will be like can generate a lot of theological debate. The confusing might be on how casual it all can sound. There is a disjointedness that is hard to say creates a formal approach to doctrinal exigesis.

Mormons probably don’t like (systematic) theology because of the attitudes of the early leaders, particularly Joseph Smith. Theology is often interpreted as dogma, and “dogma” is considered even worse than theology because of the inherent rejection of new revelation. The word “doctrine” is far more accepted a term because it isn’t seen as related to a closed set of rules and beliefs. Thus, why Bruce R. McConkie's book was named “Mormon Doctrine” rather than “Mormon Theology” when published.

So, Mormons do have theology, but it is open to various interpretations and added revelation. Because of that, the word doctrine is the more accepted term. It represents a set of teachings that can be independent and changed according to prophetic and personal insights. Theology is too closed and grounded in what is considered an age of Apostasy and False Creeds.

In response to the above, Lynnette stated:

Jettboy, that’s a good point that Joseph Smith had quite a bit of contempt for what he referred to as “dogma,” and I don’t doubt that his outlook has continued to influence the church. However, I’m not sure that theology as such has always had the bad reputation that it currently does–I can think of a number of people in the first century of the church’s existence who seem to have understood themselves as engaging in theological work: Parley P. Pratt, John A. Widtsoe, B.H. Roberts, James E. Talmage. I don’t know the history well enough to know when and why that changed.

I suppose it is correct in the interpretation of what they did as theology. However, I think most of their work was less theological than explanations of doctrine. The exception would probably be Parley P. Pratt and B.H.Roberts whose major works and ideas were highly controversial during their own lives. In other words, they were exceptions rather than the rule when they wrote. If they are included, then Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie should also be recognized as theologians as they tried to explain Mormonism.

Perhaps it is a semantics problem. Who isn’t enganged in doctrinal topics who aren’t also engaging in theology? Are the two interchangeable or completely different? What is theology as opposed to doctrine?

If it is true, as the above post article almost more than implies, that “Theological reflection is dependent on these [traditional outside] sources,” no wonder most Mormons reject it. They already believe those sources are what they are trying to get away from and should be rejected. At best they can be used to follow the path of Apostasy and not for any insight into God’s words. Even early LDS theologians often spoke negatively of the teachings of the Christian traditionalists. Assuming Mormon theology can only exist as engaged in traditional Christian thought, then the message of the First Vision and other revelations has declared formal theology blasphemy.

However, I think it is unnecessary to have to accept the above proposition in order to find Mormon theology valuable. For me, it seems such an attitude of theological distancing has created a serious confusion as to doctrinal teachings as understood by those not of the faith. Non-members too often take as a given things that are not set as absolutes. When they discover this by discussing Mormonism with those of various viewpoints within the faith, they consider it contradictions rather than fluidity of doctrinal discourse. Even Orthodox Mormons understand this doctrinal flexibility, but they don’t know how to articulate the theological implications because they usually only know how to talk in absolutes. This is not about opening up to divergent ideas (that I am opposed to), but rather ability to effectively and correctly communicate nuances. My interest in Mormon theology is that it is very complicated, and cannot be understood (as Joseph Smith said) without serious contemplation.

added thoughts

“We should all be active theologins and actively discuss the differing doctrines with open and intelligent minds.”

Before we can do that, I think we first need to know what doctrinal teachings are available for discussion. That takes a more serious effort to study the Scriptures and teachings of the Prophets before going off on subjects that are not fully thought out. Just because an idea is out there doesn’t mean it is supportable or worthy of debate. My reasoning in the post is that engaging in theology is first about recognizing the complexities inherent in the doctrines (and not about finding the next Big Mystery).

What attracts me to Mormonism is partly what the more evangelical (both in and out of the LDS Church) find disturbing. What they call “moving targets” and “contradictions,” I call complexity of doctrinal possibilities. What that means in a practical sense is that Mormon theology is an individual-reasoned product. Although there are theological ideas that are much better and sustainable than others, yet very little is set aside as absolute dogmatics. It is that excitement of finding connections and possibilities that weren’t seen before that makes, for me, Mormonism a living religion.

“We should not be afraid to bring up ideas that might seem contrary to what another thinks, even if that person is high in the ranks of the church.”

I think this is wrong and related to what I meant by not opening up divergent ideas. Such a stance seems contrary to the very central doctrine of Priesthood Authority and Prophetic Councel. Having a mind to discover mysteries on our own is absolutely essential. The problem is that doctrines that make up Mormon theology include teachings from those who are “higher up” in the Church, particularly those with Church-wide authority and responsibility. True, they often have their own theological constructs; but, you can’t ignore them simply because you think you know better. The whole idea of Mormon theology (vs. traditional or systematic) is that no one can be completely correct. Of course, that is where the necessity of Revelation, both authoritative and personal, comes into play.

And this is where I would like to quote one more thing from my original statements at the value of theology discussion:

On top of that, theologizing in the LDS faith has more often been political than religious in purpose. Such a thing has put a bad taste in many member’s mouths about theological explorations. In fact, this has been the situation with religious discourse outside of the Church in recent years. Because of this, members see (in combination with other factors) theology as a bludgen rather than a help in coming to spiritual knowledge.

In other words, too much of theological exploration is based more on Political discourse than Spiritual insights; although you can’t always divorce the two. That is why you probably read far more about feminism, morality of war, and Socialism vs. Capitalism then you do the operations of the Spirit or functions of the Priesthood in Salvation. Even discussions about faith in Jesus Christ as a Savior of the World is put in the background. Too many think those are simple and “Sunday School” when they are the start to theological understanding.


Old Charley said...

I see you can see that the straight and narrow leads to eternal endless insights into the greater light. Ride the greater light waves into the exalted ever expanding cosmos of the celestial worlds, worlds without end if you can my friend!

Jettboy said...

I will try and hope you do as well. There is so much out there to be enlightened with if the Spirit remains our guide. Once we think we can know things of ourselves, then the light becomes dimmer rather than bright.

Old Charley said...

Yes if we think we know them of ourselves we are the most lost of people, but even as Ammon rejoiced in the great success God granted them his brother misunderstood and accused him of boasting (Alma 26:10-22). I'm afraid you misunderstood me my friend when I tried in my weakness to share the great light God has given me to share with others. Perhaps I should of said if any of us can endure to the end. I apologize for any offence and wish you God speed and good day.

Jettboy said...

No, I wasn't offended. I was actually agreeing with you and then making an additional remark. Sorry it sounded like it was personal.

Old Charley said...

Thanks you have a great Blog site.

Anne/kq said...

You know, my cousin's husband is a Lutheran minister. My aunt is a devout Catholic and her husband is kind of a lay-leader, teaching, as he has, at Catholic schools (and being principal or assistant principal) for his entire career. With all of them I have had wonderful theological conversations, that when I think upon it, are not unlike what I think a good Sunday School class is like. (And in my ward, we have an EXCELLENT GD class.) Of course, more of the discussions with them than in SS end up with us "agreeing to disagree" or saying, "That's interesting, it's nice to know what you believe." But I think you may be onto something about discussions of doctrine wandering into the theological without people knowing it-- although some people within the LDS community may not be as adverse to it as others.