Review: Reading Alma 32, Part I: A New Vision for Mormon Theology

Title: An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32
Editor: Adam S. Miller
Publisher: Salt Press
Genre: Religion/Philosophy
Year: 2011
Pages: 98
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 978-0983963608
Price: $12.95

One particular question within the realm of Mormon studies that has stubbornly persisted for the last several years is the question of how theology is “done” in Mormonism. In other words, how does Mormon theological discourse proceed? How should it proceed? How do Mormons talk about their theology, and is this same as how Mormons should go about their theology? In lived Mormonism, because of the emphasis on how Mormonism is or should be practiced or experienced (instead of how it is or should be thought), and, therefore, in the absence of an officially recognized system of doctrines, this is a question that remains presently relevant in unique ways, in comparison to other Christian(ish) theologies. Potentially authoritative sources for theology are relatively easy (though not entirely unproblematic) to identify–Scripture; Apostles (living and dead); historical precedent; publications issued under the Church imprimatur. How to weave these together in authoritative and universally recognized ways is another matter entirely. In other words, the raw materials of theology are there, but there are no theologians (those who have been expertly trained to understand the histories, uses, and creative potential of the raw materials) to deliver theological products. What essentially happens as a consequence is that the burden of theological production falls largely on the individual Mormon, a seeming paradox in an institution with such an apparently rigid and thoroughly hierarchical magisterium. The paradox loses much of its contradictory force however, when we recall, again, the emphasis on practice and experience in the Mormon world. Mormon authorities expend most of their public discourse on establishing and enforcing norms of behavior and practice within Mormon life. When doctrines are taught, they are usually taught with this end in mind, not with the sole purpose of shoring up official beliefs that are ecclesiastically and confessionally binding.

So where does theology proper get done, if at all? The answer, it seems, is, well, nowhere. Everywhere. There is no officially sanctioned space to “do” theology in the Mormon world. Instead, individual Saints, merely by virtue of being counted as member of the fold, are reminded to “seek diligently and teach one another words of wisdom….seek[ing] learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 118).

Enter Salt Press, “an independent academic press dedicated to publishing books that engage Mormon texts, show familiarity with the best contemporary thinking, remain accessible to non-specialists, and foreground the continuing relevance of Mormon ideas.” Salt Press is a project that wagers precisely on this idea: that Mormons have been given individual mandates to do the theology that is not being done by officially sanctioned and trained “experts.” Instead Mormons are to take responsibility for their own engagement with the raw materials of their theology, to hold themselves accountable for serious theological production. The recently established press is a product of the Mormon Theology Seminar, the brainchild of Adam S. Miller, a professor of Philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas (also the editor of Reading Alma 32). The Mormon Theology Seminar is an unofficial and independent online organization that “focuses on short-term, seminar-style collaborations that, over the span of a few months of intense discussion, consider specific questions about Mormon theology through close readings of basic Mormon texts.”

The inaugural publication of Salt Press is An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32. The second part of this two-part review series (forthcoming) will focus on the actual content of this particular publication. For this first part, however, I will concentrate on the Series Introduction, which also introduces this volume. The introduction lays out the overall philosophy of the entire Mormon Theology Seminar/Salt Press enterprise, and will be necessary to elaborate in order to properly review this particular volume.

As mentioned above, Salt makes an important claim from the outset regarding Mormon theology: Mormon theology is perhaps best done through close engagements with its most basic texts, the Scriptures. In other words, history, doctrine, words of living authorities, all have their special place and function within the Mormon universe, but theology proper is to be based on the one theological source that is named “sacred text.” Salt is not concerned with the development of theology and doctrine in Mormon history per se (though it does not and cannot cast it aside); it is not concerned with semantic analysis of theological concepts that have been used in Mormon theological discourse per se (though it does not and cannot cast such analysis aside). Rather, it wagers that Mormon theology is, above all else, scriptural theology, and therefore theology is “done”  by reading the scriptures theologically (instead of devotionally, historically, or doctrinally) (1).

More specifically, though, theology is directly connected to charity. “Just as life defines the scope of biology, charity defines the proper span of theology.” (1) This is a provocative claim. In his influential The City of God, Augustine defined theologia as “reasoning or discussion concerning the deity.” In most historical and academic contexts, this basic definition usually holds. How, then, is theology intimately connected to charity? Charity is the love of God, and God is love. The essence of God’s nature is not his power, knowledge or influence, but his love. Or in other words, God’s power, knowledge, and influence can only be understood in terms of God’s love, which is charity. Theology reveals charity, or it is not theology. A reading of a text is charitable or it is not a theological reading. Reading, in fact, argues Miller in the Series Introduction, “is a core religious practice” for Mormons (2), though it might be more accurate to say that reading is an ideal that is promulgated rather than it being actually the case that the typical lived Mormon life includes regular engagement with scripture. But reading as theology is not an “anything goes” activity. Theology attempts to illuminate patterns within a text that “show charity, produce meaning, overwrite senselessness” (2). Perhaps most importantly, however, theological readings are hypothetical. In other words, theology is a speculative enterprise. But not speculative in the ways we might try to string historical facts together to figure out what historical actors might have meant (historical speculation), or in ways we might take cryptic or obscure teachings and weave together a potential cosmological narrative (doctrinal speculation). Rather, theological speculation is the practice of being attentive to the supple, malleable nature of sacred texts. Sacred texts are responsive to our engagements with them, and are therefore, in the Mormon universe, “Liahonic.” They change and self-modify according to the kind of sustained attention we give to them. Theology’s power to illuminate the text in these ways derives “from its freedom to pose hypothetical questions: if such and such were the case, then what meaningful pattern would the text produce in response?” (4). This allows us to become co-creators with the text of Mormon theology.

Crucially, such hypothetical work is, it seems, preparatory. Theology reveals charity–it is even an instance of practiced charity, in that the work of theology is a collaborative, communal endeavor (sacred texts are most productive when when and discussed with others). But it itself is not the full work of charity. Theology clears the way for seeing with new eyes the myriad ways charity can be enacted in the world, renewed ways of “reading” the world and its people that allow them to become objects of charitable relation and giving. As such, theology itself is lighter than air, tentative, non-binding, weak, practically nothing. Theology gently whispers to us that something heretofore unconsidered is in fact possible.

The work of theology is therefore, finally, the work of translation and mediation, translating the text–and by way of the text, the world–in ever-changing yet ever-illuminating ways. As a mediator, atonement is consequently at the heart and core of theology, bringing incongruities, contradictions, alienated relationships, mistranslated interpretations, forsaken souls, back into the fold, breathing new life into that which was lost or abandoned. The work of speculative hypothesis, grounded in scripture, allows us to reconsider that which we’ve cast off in new ways, or to retranslate old paradigms in ways that speak anew to new generations. Theology properly done, according the methods Miller lays out in the introduction, occurs in the shadow cast by the Tree of Life–in the shadows because it isn’t permanently fixed; theology is always almost there but not seen clearly; it points to something other than itself–the Tree, the love of God–and because it always points away from itself it is the essence of nothingness.

Interesting questions arise from consideration of the methodology of this way of doing theology. Because the life’s blood of theology here is the text, questions about what constitutes the text, what is the text in Mormonism (as opposed to classical Christianity) are highly relevant. Perhaps even more than continuing revelation, living prophets, sacred ordinances,  the notion of what a sacred text might be may be potentially the single most distinguishing feature of Mormon theology, as well as its richest field of possibility (see, specifically, 2 Ne. 29). The Standard Works are the “basic texts” (as Miller calls them) of Mormonism. But is there a possibility that “all” texts in some way are sacred, and therefore incumbent on the Mormon faithful to treat them as such? Or in other words, could it be that all texts as texts equally exist in the Mormon world but not all texts necessarily exist equally? Do we have a latent obligation, as Mormons, to read other texts in this same way, with a preparatory charity that redeems the texts “written by all nations of the earth” (2 Ne. 29: 12) by revealing redemptive possibilities?

Comments

  1. That begs the question, is truth universal as is Love. Why ofcourse O+T=C O obeidence T truth C charity
    reagrange as needed, simple algebra

    Good artical!

  2. While I agree that any positive theology can only be tentative, I think that LDS thinkers ought to rigorously define and update their negative theology. There are inconsistent combinations of interpretive methods, theological commitments, and epistemic standards that exist all over Mormonism – these ought to be diagnosed more regularly.

  3. “Charity is the love of God, and God is love. The essence of God’s nature is not his power, knowledge or influence, but his love. Or in other words, God’s power, knowledge, and influence can only be understood in terms of God’s love, which is charity. Theology reveals charity, or it is not theology.”

    I don’t think you can say that God is any more essentially love than He is essentially Truth, Power, Knowledge, or any other attribute that it can be said He perfectly embodies. This making love exceptional leads to all kinds of misunderstandings, I think – one of the more potentially damaging being the idea that one can begin with love. One may as well say, and probably ought to say, ‘theology reveals truth, or it is not theology’ or ‘theology reveals justice, or it is not theology’, ‘theology reveals the way, or it is not theology’, etc. etc.

    The other question being whether theology alone can reveal anything. The individual project is, of course, nothing less than receiving revelation, and while theology (along with poetry, ordinary conversation, going for walks, and every other thing we experience) may assist with that project, may give material to work on in the project, it is not the project. Unless you want to define theology _as_ the project itself, in which case we need to be talking about it as containing many other things besides thinking (and writing) theologically.

    I like the idea that we do theology all the time, as Mormons. In the same vein, everyone philosophizes. They just don’t do it very well. It seems to me that the use of a more formal theology would be in showing how it can be done well. But to be very effective in this it is also going to have to be digestible, and that is always a trouble.

  4. Jacob,
    I read your OP three times to understanding your meaning. IMO, it’s not correct because such deep thinking (or reading), is not available/done by 99% of the world or those who have lived. So, to me, this can’t be the path.
    I will have to stay with in “The City of God, Augustine defined theologia as “reasoning or discussion concerning the deity.”

  5. “How to weave these together in authoritative and universally recognized ways is another matter entirely”.

    I hope there never is an authoritative and universally recognized Mormon theology developed by academics and philosophers among us, or even by the prelates among us — I much prefer God’s system where every man can speak in the name of God, and the Holy Spirit is the teacher, and every man is responsible for his own beliefs. Any man is presumptuous who tries to definitively explain WHY things are they way they are.

    “Perhaps most importantly, however, theological readings are hypothetical. In other words, theology is a speculative enterprise.”

    True. There may be ten or a hundred possible explanations for WHY something is the way it seems, and any of those explanations will work for someone at some point in some circumstance. Why must we try to force others to adopt our just ONE answer, when the other nine or ninety-nine explanations are helpful to others. I say let each man be persuaded in his own mind, and let each man obtain his learning from the Holy Spirit. Even so, I recognize a need for a man to be helpful to his neighbor.

    President Packer gave a very relevant talk in last February’s Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting — I recommend it to everyone. It was entitled Priesthood Power in the Home, and a reader might approach it as something like Mormon Theology in the Home. He said, “The Church is very practical in its organization. We are not confined to having one prelate or priest or pastor or vicar given authority then to rule over the congregation, but as that simple expression in the Doctrine and Covenants says, ‘Every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world’ (D&C 1:20).” We need to allow every man his own theological understanding.

    No, I hope there is never is an authoritative and universally recognized systematic Mormon theology. How spiritually deficient that would be and how poor as a people we would be.

  6. ji–I hope there is some room for women in there somewhere.

  7. I agree with #3. Opining that God is more love than anything else almost seems to me to be effectively trying to either limit God, or to assign a flawed humanity (ours) to him. Trying to understand anything makes it easier for us to categorize, and appeals well to our animal nature, but God defies such attempts. We lack an eternal perspective, so there are just some things that we will never be able to understand in this life no matter how much we may want to. I firmly believe that God’s personality (for lack of a better term) is one of those things.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    I have to admit that this strikes me as very foreign. For me, as an amatuer historian, my impulse is to try and understand what various people at different time beleived and how they saw the universe. Moreover, my first question is what it means that the prophet of the restoration appears to not have fealt theologically constrained by any published text.

  9. J. Stapely: what difference does it make what folks believed at various time if none of it is grounded in scripture or has a prayer of being reasonable and there is no standard for determining claims? Moreover, if JS wasn’t constrained by any text, why all that time translating the Bible?

  10. J. Stapley says:

    Blake, I can onlu speak for myself, but I tend to think that understanding others is fairly fundamental. And regarding your second question, I tend to view his interaction with the bible as precisely evidence for lack of constraint.

  11. Christopher says:

    Blake, I hope the historians who someday assess the relative significance of your own beliefs and writings are 100x more charitable to you than you are to others.

  12. Lack of constraint is not the correct way to put it.
    He wasn’t constrained by non authoratative translators or scribes but he was constrained by the spirit and what the spirit conveyed to him was mind and will if God and his prophets, etc.

    That he tried to base virtually every new/expanded teaching on some aspect of biblical teaching does show some constraints rather than a lack of it. But perhaps it could be argued that constraint was more a result of the Christian world making an idol out of the words of the bible rather than through the companionship of the holy ghost. That being the case, it could be argued our limitations constrain the prophets.

    I think it is a combination of the two. Everything I read about the prophets of this dispensation at least shows that they all have a reverence and seek unity with all Gods prophets.

  13. Christopher: I hope that the historians who assess my work do so at least as critically as I have asked questions of J. Stapley. I consider J. Stapley a friend and I am sure that he doesn’t mind a few prodding questions. He just isn’t that thin skinned. I also hope that the historians who assess my work are interested in the truth and soundness of what I have argued and not merely the historic fact that I said it.

    I see everything that Joseph did as departing from some biblical foundation. He clearly went beyond it — but the constraint is precisely that it in fact is grounded in some basis in scripture. Even the King Follett Discourse and the Sermon in the Grove are based on insights that Joseph received from a creative reading of the biblical texts. It was his consistent modus operandi.

  14. Play nice, kiddos.

  15. Costanza says:

    I’m pretty sure that nobody will know who any of us is in 100 years.

  16. Hope my #3 didn’t seem dismissive of the whole enterprise. There are actually quite a few other assumptions in here that I’d like to take on. But that doesn’t mean I’d want to set myself against the whole enterprise. *g*

  17. I believe a proper investigation will demonstrate that the uniquely LDS scriptures are eminently compatible with the Bible in every significant way, and more so than any other Christian tradition. That is not to say that Joseph Smith and others did not have extra-canonical beliefs that may not bear out in detail, but that is why we distinguish between canonized revelation and personal opinion, is it not?

    If we ever have a problem in LDS theology, it seems to me to be due to giving too high a priority to non-canonical commentary over what is actually written in the scriptures. Take D&C 20:28 and a number of parallel passages for example, which clearly teach that Mormonism, properly conceived is a variety of trinitarianism – not the kind formalized at Nicea perhaps, but trinitarian in some very important sense nonetheless. “Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end”.

    Now in my opinion, that assertion has first magnitude consequences for Mormon theology – consequence that seem to be neglected in favor of casual, largely non-canonical assertions of multiple uppercase-G Gods. For one thing LDS scriptures seem to indicate that the true spirit of Mormonism is monotheist in a very important sense (high cardinality social trinitarianism perhaps), not Polytheist with a capital P, as so many seem to blithely assume.

    This is why the scriptures must be given first priority. They are largely direct revelations, endorsed by God, canonized by the church, stable and lasting. Interpretations will come and go, but the scriptures are intended to be around forever. Theology based on secondary sources tends to be on shaky ground, as recent events more than adequately demonstrate.

  18. Christopher says:

    I hope that the historians who assess my work do so at least as critically as I have asked questions of J. Stapley. I consider J. Stapley a friend and I am sure that he doesn’t mind a few prodding questions. He just isn’t that thin skinned. I also hope that the historians who assess my work are interested in the truth and soundness of what I have argued and not merely the historic fact that I said it.

    Charity and criticality aren’t incompatible, Blake, and I share your hope that future historians will critically assess your writings and beliefs.

  19. Mark D,

    I think agree with you, but we can see.

    I think that Mormonism is importantly monotheistic in the sense that there is only one way to be a God, and that all Gods are Gods in that sense, and are united around that sense. I see no need to assume contrary to tradition that there is any shared substance, including any kind of communal indwelling of anything substantial. In other words, the old seminary answer that Gods are one in purpose is sufficient to describe their oneness. The reason that oneness is important is to distinguish it as against between a spirit of Polytheism which says that Gods can be various kinds of beings and still be Gods. There is no one personality of Zeus, and another of Vulcan. There are common Eternal personality traits necessary to and shared by all, but possessed individually.

    Otherwise … we’ve got a burden of Protestant language come to us through shared scripture, and the religious language in which the Mormon revelations were written. If Joseph Smith were deep in the language of, say, mid-20th century psychology at the time the Book of Mormon was translated, it would read quite differently, though expressing the same ideas, and we would be facing other problems than disentangling ourselves from Protestants.

    The question is: is God sufficient in Himself to be called a God, or is it necessary that He share in some communal existence. The way I like to ask this question is: if all Gods but our God, let’s call Him Heavenly Father, eh?, were to cease to exist, does our God posses all that is needed to carry on in His purpose? That is, could our God singularly carry on the process of bringing some number others to Eternal Life? If the answer is yes, then no communal sharing is needed to the title, and we are a polytheistic religion with a deeply important monotheistic sense. If the communal aspect is necessary to the title, i.e He is incapable of carrying out His purpose to any degree without a community of Gods, then what is it that we actually worship?

    Cool.

  20. I also hope we never get to the point in mortality that we formulate a Mormon theology that is so concrete that it makes us “creedal” in the classic sense of that word. I want general outlines and the freedom to wander around within them and see what hits me uniquely and individually – to come to experience God on a personal level and reach my own understanding what God wants of my mind and my heart.

    Iow, I want to see through my own glass more clearly, but I don’t want to have someone hand me their glass and insist I see through it.

    I appreciate this post and the comments so far. They have made me think – and I am grateful whenever that happens.

  21. #20, I agree. A framework is appreciated, but let me decorate my own house.

  22. Thomas P, We could debate whether the canon is actually inspired or not, but it is the canon. If the leaders of the church think that it is fundamentally wrong in some respect or another, they should petition for a new revelation of some sort that definitively clarifies where the previous scriptures are so deeply in error, and canonize it in General Conference.

    Now the exact sense in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are one God, infinite and eternal, without end, is certainly a point for discussion, but it seems to me that the entire point of that passage and three nearly identical passages in the Book of Mormon, and others elsewhere is precisely that “Gods” with an uppercase G is a grammatical error. It is true that whoever prepared the Book of Abraham for publication capitalized it that way, but everywhere else in the scriptures it is “gods”.

    So far as the canon is concerned does it make sense to say that three Gods are one God? I don’t think so. It doesn’t even make sense from a logical point of view. Three independently all-powerful beings is a contradiction in terms, one that the scriptures provide direct evidence against:

    “I can of mine own self do nothing.” (John 5:30)

    “And he received all power, both in heaven and on earth, and the glory of the Father was with him, for he dwelt in him.” (D&C 93:17)

  23. Aye, Mark D.

    But the different passages of scripture are interpreted so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling these questions by appeal to the canon.

    “Three independently all-powerful beings”

    I would never argue for the term “all-powerful.”

    I may get to this later, as I’m working a graveyard, but more likely not, Take er easy.

  24. Thomas P, We have a broader canon in large part so we can have much greater confidence in settling these questions through an appeal to the canon, no?

    As to the other issue you raised, I think it is pretty clear that in any contest between whether we worship the nature and the persons, it is ultimately the persons that win out. That is what a major Pratt / Young dispute was all about.

    But the problem with Orson Pratt’s theory, it seems to me, is that he had an Aristotelian sense of the divine attributes, i.e they were static, eternal, immutable, self-existent and so on. The divine nature came first and the divine persons followed. Ultimately, however, that seems to be almost backwards. Other than the things we know per se nota (the kindergarten virtues, more or less), the divine nature seems to much easier to understand in terms of the product of divine persons, the glue or covenant that they establish to hold themselves together, and indeed to be divine, rather than the other way around.

    So you can’t really worship the divine nature, but one could properly worship a person who possessed a fulness of the divine nature, because such a person would, by proxy, perfectly represent every other person who has that shared fulness, and who maintain it by common consent. A high cardinality social trinity, in other words. Individuals divine by participation and shared indwelling glory with every other member of the same. One God, infinite and eternal, without end.

  25. “So you can’t really worship the divine nature, but one could properly worship a person who possessed a fulness of the divine nature”

    With only that wording available, wouldn’t it be the divine nature itself that is the fundamental element being worshiped – since only those who “possess its fulness” are worthy of worship?

    I think that is a central theological strand in Mormonism – that the only way we can be considered God-like or gods is to reach the same “state of being” as God, meaning we “become gods” by partaking fully of “the divine nature”. We don’t just partake of some of it; we actually reach the point where we are partaking of it fully. Iow, in Mormonism, “god” isn’t a “being / person / individual”. Rather, “godhood” is a condition. There are various views about GOD, God and god – but godhood is central to our theology, and it seems to be central to and inseparable from “worship” of God, a Being.

  26. With only that wording available, wouldn’t it be the divine nature itself that is the fundamental element being worshiped – since only those who “possess its fulness” are worthy of worship?

    Not if the divine nature is in its power, glory, and fulness a product of the spiritual union of the beings that possess it. It is pretty clear that to have a stable society, people have to agree on things. Societies where people have a sense of belonging tend to have a shared culture, and one might imagine that a heavenly society has a shared spirit that is the product of the spirits of all of its members, a sort of general will, or zeitgeist as it were, of the very nature necessary to keep such a society together in ever increasing glory, power, extent, character, subtlety, and spiritual union. Spiritually self-surpassing, in other words. A dynamic, social perfection not independent of persons, but rather derived therefrom.

    Not the nature first, and then the persons, but rather the persons first and then the nature. Pretty much the Aristotelian idea of the divine stood on its head.

  27. A bit of the chicken or the egg, I think.

  28. I think you are right, up to a point, Ray. Can people stumble onto basic goods using natural reason, and execute them to the best of their ability, without divine support? If they can then the first level of character attributes really are Aristotelian.

    Truly divine character qualities, on the other hand, seem to be the sort of thing that one needs divine participation for. If not, what is the point of being “willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon us, even as a child doth submit to his father”?

    Is that just an option for those who are so ill disciplined and intemperate as to lack the ability to acquire the Aristotelian perfections for themselves? And how can being honest, true, chaste, benevolent and so on grant someone divine power anyway? Isn’t that exactly what is meant by the arm of flesh? Walking in your own way and doing your own thing, according to your own lights?

  29. Theology properly done…occurs in the shadow cast by the Tree of Life–in the shadows because it isn’t permanently fixed; theology is always almost there but not seen clearly; it points to something other than itself–the Tree, the love of God–and because it always points away from itself it is the essence of nothingness.

    Come on, y’all, that quote is just money in the bank. Accurately represents what Miller’s intro argues, and does it with flair and a new, memorable metaphor. Excellent, excellent.

  30. #21: I agree. A framework is appreciated, but let me decorate my own house.

    Ha, I like the image. This book, I think, is a great tool for helping improve our interior design skills. Some of the coolest design ideas are developed in a group, or are a variation on a theme discovered elsewhere, and this book gives some excellent patterns to try out at home.

    Funny to see all the godhead chatter in the comments, too. I had the same question Jacob raised at the end of the post regarding how we determine the usefulness of texts in general. We have a commonly agreed upon canon, but our texts point to other non-canonical possibilities, and what is our obligation to discover them, and how should they inform the ways we read our canonized texts? Etc.

  31. Antonio Parr says:

    “Theologians don’t know nothing about my soul” (Jeff Tweedy)

  32. Various theologians have helped me understand new things about my soul, FWIW. The anti-theologian impulse is lame to me.

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