Of Course Mormonism has Theology

Dave’s post over at DMI reminded me of first time I heard that Mormonism didn’t have “theology”. Back then I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” As I listened, though, I slowly understood. I also agreed. However, the more I’ve listened to discussions on the topic, the more I’ve found the claim problematic.

The problem with this, as I see it is (at least) two-fold:

First of all, “theology” is removed from it’s broader sense of “faith seeking understanding” to a more specialized/technical sense that disqualifies not only Mormonism from having theology, but just about every religion besides Christianity (and only certain kinds of Christianity there in). Etymological concerns aside, I’m not persuaded that this amounts to much more than saying Mormons have not engaged in activities such as those done by Schleiermacher or convened councils to enact creeds. Many, if not all of these conclusions are already known, and could be arrived at without invoking the term ‘theology’. I am also not persuaded that much is gained by using so narrow a definition.

Secondly (and this is the bone I really wanted to pick), it seems that all too often we use the notion of no “theology” to create a convenient “other” for us to work in opperation against. “We” are a-theological and not bound by the same constructs as “they” are. We revel in our a-theology because it gives us the leeway to build multiple intellectual positions, and not be so hard and fast in our definitions and doctrines. I believe this leads to us creating ways of thinking that are “Orientalist” in as much as we require this “other” for self definition and identity.

How to Reconcile Difference: In History and More

Earlier comments made by Mogget that the BoM tends to deal with the “other” in terms of conversion, military conquest, or basically “ignoring” them has got me thinking. How do we as a people deal reconcile difference? I’m less inclined to make a textual observation here (as I believe Mogs was doing); and instead am speaking socio-culturally.

I think there are a variety of (sometimes competing) alternatives we already employ in dealing with difference (both internal and external differences). In some regards this is directly related to recent posts dealing with the problem of history and theology, or scholarship and faith. What I would like to do here is creating a listing of sorts–a taxonomy that identifies the ways in which we reconcile these kind of challenges. Below are four methods that I would suggest we already use. The questions I would like to ask are, what other modes of reconciliation do we or should we employ? What are the strengths and weakness with each of these approaches? Should some of these be “dismissed” as ineffective or non-viable means of dealing with difference?

Eclecticism: The selective adoption or rejection of specific concepts to the de-emphasis and overemphasis of others. E.g., We have become the “Book of Mormon generation” where the BoM is employed much more frequently than the Bible. In the Bible we emphasis certain portions and downplay others. The Gospels compared with the epistles, for instance.

Ecumenicism: An exercise of faith where God’s omniscience is trusted to somehow tie the differences together into “one great whole”. E.g., Different Mormons can have differing opinions as to God’s relationship with the world he has created. How much does he intervene? How do we explain evil? The scripture mastery verse in Isaiah is usually implied with Ecumenicism: “His ways are greater than our ways.” (pardon my paraphrasing)

Compartmentalism: Different circumstances call for different responses. E.g., In Polynesia, many males wear the traditional lavalava to church rather than slacks. Comparmentalism is also used to explain how early members of the church (or even individuals in the scriptures) did things differently because they were of a different time (drinking of wine for instance). We often employ Compartmentalism with the phrase, “It’s the Spirit that matters.”

Inclusivism: The reworking of the concepts of the “other” in a shared terminology (or often purely in our own terminology). E.g., Most people believe in a supreme being, but we call him by different names.

Apologetics: “Don’t we have Anything Else to Talk About?”

 The title for this post comes from the (slightly altered) title of a presentation given at a conference at Yale for Latter-day Saint students (doing work in religion). The presenter, a Yale Div School student, argued for moving beyond apologetics, except in certain circumstances. I would like to further examine the circumstances which make apologetics appropriate. Continue reading “Apologetics: “Don’t we have Anything Else to Talk About?””

Role of the Scholar Pt. 1–A Priority of Questions?

At a recent conference held at Yale for LDS students doing work in Religious Studies, one of the issues that was broached but not really expanded on was the relationship between the Church and the scholar. In the next few posts I would like to unpack the issue a little more.

In this post I would like to pose the notion of priority in questions–are some questions inherently better than others? As scholars are we “progressing” in asking the questions we ask? Are we “moving beyond” the old questions that once interested us, or are we simply moving on to “different” ones?

The background for this comes from the fact that I am no longer interested in the types of questions I used to be. Debates about Coke and the Word of Wisdom, or progression between kingdoms after death don’t interest me anymore. Looking back at those questions I can’t help but wonder if I’ve “progressed” onto new issues, or if other things have simply struck my fancy (or perhaps I’ve “regressed”).

I’m not necessarily looking to make my experience paradigmatic in any way, but it does seem to follow similar trends of those I know working on “advanced” degrees (related to religion, at least). The bigger question of course, is whether there is a hierarchy of questions, or at least a hierarchy to a style of questioning (perhaps related to the questions that are asked). As scholars do we want to establish our “progression” as the norm (assuming some sense of unity constituting an “our”)? One argument I’ve heard in support of this is that an added level of self-reflexivity, which is part of “scholarly” questioning is something all members should develop. The recent post by Jupiter’s Child about the lack of self-reflexivity of things posted in the Daily Universe is evidence of this.

When to put a Child up for Adoption

I recently learned that a person I know put her baby up for adoption. As I don’t know all the details of this story, I won’t go into to specifics; but I am familiar with a couple of other people who, aftering getting pregnant while rather young (usually in their teens) gave up their children at the encouragment of the church.

I’m wondering about the reasoning behind this encouragement (both culturally and institutionally).

One couple I met, got pregnant while in highschool and gave their baby up for adoption. When this couple turned 18 they were married, and I met them in our ward when they were in their young 20’s. Not a Sunday would go past without them talking about thier baby. Wondering what he was doing, if he had been treated well. I couldn’t help but wonder if adoption was the right thing for them to do.

I know this is one case, and maybe even in this circumstance adoption was right, but what I would like to question is the rationale for encouraging adoption. What I usually hear is that adoption is right when it gives the child the best home possible. It seems that what is implied by “best home possible” is two loving parents, who are active members of the church and are financially stable.

Is there more than this that comes into play?

On my honor I will… shave?

While at BYU I often wondered why “dress and grooming standards” were subsumed under “the honor code”. Can someone please explain this to me?

Why isn’t dress and grooming standards in a category of it’s own? I guess the reason I’m bothered by this was because, as circumstances would have it, I occasionally went off to class having forgot to shave, and was warned a few times about violating “the honor code”. I couldn’t help but feeling that in essence my personal “honor” was being challenged. Was my 5 o’clock shadow somehow marking me as a “dishonorable” person?

Of course some of the root issues at play here are the relation between appearance and morality, the mediation of appearance between the inner-self and outter society, the social construction of meaning in symbols, and many others.

To see BYU’s honor code go here: http://honorcode.byu.edu/The_Honor_Code.htm

Communal Judgment

This relates to a post I started before going on Christmas break on the topic of idol worship. I do intend to fully respond and revive that particular issue, but in this post I would like to know others thoughts on the related topic of communal judgment. In other words, in the Bible there seem to judgments made against entire groups of people: Sodom and G., the people during the time of Noah, and many of the non-Israelite tribes in the Old Testament. In the New Testament Jesus curses a series of towns, and predicts the fall of Jerusalem. I’m sure we could find similar examples in the BoM.

I think we, as Mormons, still believe in communal judgment, yet how do we make sense of it in light of our sympathetic understanding of other civilizations/cultures/people?

Over the past year I have heard three members (in three different states) relate hurricane Katrina to the wickedness of N.O. Personally I stay far away from such statements, and I think most reading this post do as well, but in light of statements such as, “Further, we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets,” from the Proclamation how do we hold to notions of communal judgment withoutlinking something such as the natural disaster to the wickedness of the community it effects?

Is Temple Prep Really Preparation?

I’ve thought a little about this in the past but I was reminded of it again when I ran across a couple in our ward who had gone through the temple for the first time and when I asked how it went they remarked, “Temple prep sure didn’t help.”

There is obviously a gap between what we are preparing new inductees for and what they experience. Now, I don’t necessarily have many numbers to support such a statement, but having gone through it myself, taught it, and then watched many others go through it themselves, I can’t help but notice there is a problem.

So, three questions:
1. Is this problem real, or is it just me?
2. If it is real, where does the problem come from?
3. What can be done to solve it?

What’s wrong with idol worship?

The lesson in priesthood this past Sunday was on signs of the second coming (based on the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church book on W.W.). It was a fairly uneventful lesson until we started talking about how to interpret the signs and one good elder shared the experience of his brother who lived in Sri Lanka shortly before the Tsunami. He commented, “My brother told me about how ripe the place was for destruction. With all the idol worship going on and all, it was no wonder what happened when it did.”

I usually try to tone down my thoughts a notch or two before letting them escape my mouth, and fortunately in this situation someone else had their hand up befor me, so by the time it came for me to speak, I had translated the thought “I’m swimming in a Tsunami of ignorance” into something much more cordial.

Now, I think most of us would agree that such a comment is utterly ridiculous, but it did get me thinking about a few other issues that are relevant to raise here. The first is about idol worship. How do we make sense of idol worship given the injunctions against it in the Bible on the one hand, and our inclusivness of other religions on the other (most people believe in a supreme being, yet call him by different names)? Should we dismiss the Bible as culturally insensitive? Reinterpret “idol” to mean something else that qualifies the Biblical warning and yet disqualifies other sincere religious belief as “idolotrous”? Or maintain a position that much of the world are worshiping “false gods”? Or another alternative?

Proper Practice Makes a Good Mormon

I’m going to have to admit here that I keep up with little of the debates concerning Mormon “theology”, so please forgive me if some of these ideas are half-baked and/or already worked over in other blogs.
It seems to be the case that proper practice (orthopraxy) rather than proper belief (orthodoxy) defines a good Mormon. By ‘good Mormon’ I mean someone who is “temple worthy”—i.e. they can pass a temple recommend interview by answering each question honestly. This is not to say that belief is insignificant, but the defining characteristic of being a good Mormon is one who adheres to a strict notion of performance and not one who has a coherent theology (i.e. a theology which coheres to a larger body of “orthodox” church teaching). For instance, one can remain agnostic to the issue of progression between kingdoms in heaven and still be a good Mormon. I would extend this even further to say that you don’t have to believe in the Bible as literal history in order to qualify. In other words, any member holding a series of non-mainstream beliefs actually could honestly pass a temple recommend interview. While this certainly isn’t an either/or situation where we ONLY judge practice to the neglect of belief, how we work out the relation between the two is unclear.

Now, while I’m certainly willing to debate the issue of whether it is correct to speak of an “orthropraxy” for Mormonism, I’m personally interested in the implications of assuming the above to be correct. In other words, what does it mean to define Mormonism in terms of practice (keeping in mind I am not saying that it is defined SOLEY in terms of practice)? And how does this shape the way we perceive ourselves? Must we be more lenient to those with differing beliefs, in as much as they fit within the wide bounds of Mormon “doctrine”? Is this why many of the internal debates on policy, as well as messages given in conference are about “what to do”?
One strong point of an orthopraxy is that the leadership does not have to have a vigorous intellectual training in order to lead (and perhaps members don’t have to know a rigorous systematic theology in order to join). The downside of course is that actions are often (mis)interpreted as dissent. For instance, facial hair, white shirts, and other “nitpicky” actions become points of contention. An orthopraxy may lead us to be over concerned with “appearance” rather than what goes on beneath the appearance. This of course raises questions about whether homogenization of form leads to homogenization of content; and I could certainly go on, but I’m wondering what other’s thoughts are.