Title: Mormonism at the Crossroads of Philosophy and Theology: Essays in Honor of David L. Paulsen
Editor: Jacob T. Baker
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
When it comes to academic engagement with philosophy and theology, Mormonism largely lacks two things: People and place. Mormons who are interested in making a comfortable living typically don’t seek higher education in these areas. The Church’s schools, seminaries and institutes focus more on devotional approaches to the faith. Such circumstances help explain why some of the most sustained work in recent Mormon theologizing and philosophizing has occurred in interfaith settings, which can provide interlocutors and institutions for participation and publication. When the topic of Mormon/Christian interreligious dialog arises, people are likely to think of Stephen E. Robinson’s How Wide the Divide, or Robert Millet’s books attempting rapprochement with various Evangelical scholars, books published mostly by non-Mormon presses. David L. Paulsen’s name is less likely to be recognized by the average Mormon than Robinson or Millet, but it is arguable that Paulsen has done more than any currently-living Mormon scholar in advancing sustained and rigorous interfaith exchanges. The scary and valuable thing about exchanges is that everyone usually departs changed in some sense.
Paulsen’s work has been as much philosophical as theological, as suggested by his writings found in non-Mormon publications like Faith and Philosophy and the Harvard Theological Review. In addition to contributing to the wider academy, Paulsen has spent a long career in the philosophy department at Brigham Young University, nourishing multiple rising generations of Mormon philosophers, including Blake Ostler, and more recently, Jacob T. Baker, who has edited a festschrift, or collection of honorary essays, in Paulsen’s honor. Throughout his career, Paulsen managed to attract a variety of Mormon and non-Mormon thinkers to discuss or rethink a variety of perennial matters, including the relationship between grace and works, the problem of evil, and the nature of God. (On the latter topic, Paulsen has the distinction of being cited by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland in a recent General Conference address).
Most striking about this collection is that non-Mormon contributors outnumber Mormon contributors–certainly a first for collections honoring LDS scholars, and a reflection of Paulsen’s ability to attract and engage a variety of interlocutors, not to mention the maturation of interfaith dialog between Mormons and others. Like any such collection, the quality of contributions is uneven. A few do no more than reflect on Paulsen’s ecumenical abilities, which seem to be the main precondition for the most interesting aspect of the other essays–explicit disagreement over points of theology and even the offering of correctives. Unlike other books of interfaith dialog like Millet’s or Robinson’s, these essays appear without response, including essays which challenge various Mormon tenets. The nature of God and embodiment is the most frequent point of contest, an issue which received significant attention Paulsen’s 1975 dissertation, and which is the main focus of five of the book’s seventeen essays.
In other words, non-Mormons are welcome into the volume without requiring them to ignore or even downplay theological differences. For example, Carl Mosser lays out a useful classification of different types of theism, concluding that Mormonism is technically “a form of atheism in the narrow sense but a form of theism in the broad sense” (32). He recognizes the potential rhetorical misunderstanding such a remark could create, so he settles on “Anglo-American finite theism” for Mormons (34). Elsewhere, John E. Sanders “cannot agree with the highly literal Mormon understanding of God” as an embodied the literal Father of material human spirits in a procreative, physiological sense (209). The biblical texts Mormons appeal to on such matters, he argues, are conceptual metaphors. In another piece, Clark H. Pinnock suggests that Mormoninsm’s literalist belief in an embodied God could stand a bit of relaxing, but also adds that other Christians would benefit from contemplating the idea that God may in fact have a body of some kind (232). A few Mormon contributors challenge some of Paulsen’s views, as when James M. McLachlan “cannot hold with Paulsen that there is a necessary purpose to [all] suffering” (343). My favorite essay in the bunch, by Brian Birch, takes a close look at the idea of “faith seeking understanding,” scrutinizing the role of reason in the defense or articulation of faith, an essay which implicitly offers a critique of the book, the approaches and projects of the contributors, and David Paulsen’s own work.
In Baker’s words, each contributor to this volume
“developed over time the hard-won ability to carefully articulate, explore, and criticize Mormon theological teachings in a constructive and charitable manner,” an ability which Paulsen also manages in his own discussion of wider Christian belief. Baker suggests such a process is “exemplary of the introspective and contemplative practice of repentance, a gifted grace that might be viewed as providing one with the ability to extend charity and benevolence to the views of others, as well as to one’s own perspective and beliefs. Such a charitably penitent process softens the heart and the mind without weakening the integrity of either” (xi).
Baker rounds out the volume with a nice piece on the life and work of David Paulsen at the start, and a list of Paulsen’s publications at the finish. All of this makes for an interesting collection befitting the career of one of the most philosophically and theologically engaged Mormons in the history of the Latter-day Saint movement.