Depending on who you ask you’ll get a different answer. I offer a qualified “yes,” which may be against the grain depending on who you ask and how the discussion goes. BYU professor James E. Faulconer has called Mormonism “atheological,” stressing that Mormons emphasize history, practice, and lived experience above rational, propositional content.1 In the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Louis C. Midgley characteristically skewers theology along similar lines, saying that in spite of a few caveats, theology is “not entirely at home in the LDS community.”2 Philosopher Adam Miller has paradoxically or puzzlingly depicted theology as excess, likening his own work to the construction of a Rube Goldberg machine (it depends on how you read Miller whether this is a good or bad thing).3 Blake Ostler’s three volume series is heavily theological, but he uses a different “T” word in the title: Exploring Mormon Thought.4
Soon, Terryl Givens will publish his ambitious overview of “the foundations of Mormon thought.”5 I’m not yet all the way through it, but from what I’ve read so far I can say Givens’s book, despite being framed more as a history of thought, does itself formulate a bit of Mormon theology. This is especially apparent in the rhetorical advantage given by Givens to particular conclusions where the historical record is a bit cloudy. Givens sometimes points out the lack of a clear position on a point but nevertheless articulates where he thinks mainstream LDS thought rests (as with the discussion of the eternal/created nature of intelligences or spirits) or he alternately advances something more likely to be resisted by mainstream LDS thought (such as his description of the war in heaven issue about agency or his depiction of apostasy/restoration).
What I’m saying is that even when trying to simply write a history of theological ideas, it’s difficult to resist doing a little theological work.
But I think that’s okay. The stigma against “theology” (which Hugh Nibley famously described as what people do when revelation ceases) is unnecessary and even somewhat uncharitable to people of other faiths. More importantly, I think the stigma suggests widespread misunderstanding of how Mormon thought has actually developed. Rather than consisting of a pristine corpus of fact bestowed upon infallible prophets from heaven since 1830, the Restoration is an ongoing project as recently described by President Uchtdorf.6 The heavenly and the human continue to participate in the process. The best part of Givens’s book so far comes right at the outset, pages 6–22, “Mormonism and Theology.” It’s one of the best and most concise overviews of the place of “theology” (doctrine, revelation, authority) in the Church from the 1830s to the present. Givens concludes with the observation that “Mormon belief through the years” is made up of a “still evolving and sometimes inconsistent amalgam,” meaning that “all attempts to capture the essence of Mormon thought…are limited and provisional” (22).
Which brings me to Bernard McGinn. I just published one of my favorite interviews I’ve done so far on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. McGinn, a Catholic theologian, joined me to talk about his new biography of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae, a massive and classic work in Catholic theology. We spent time talking about what theology actually is, what it means to do theology. I recommend the entire interview (please, for real, go download it, share it with your friends, please fall in love with the MIPodcast!), but in this post I’ve typed up an excerpt to spur some conversation about the place of theology in Mormonism.
Here are two excerpts, pasted together:
BHodges: Before we get into the book in general, Bernard McGinn, I want to start off by talking about the idea of theology in general. So if you can talk about how you became interested in theology, and what “theology” means to you, it will give Mormon listeners a good idea—because the word “theology” tends to set off some alarm bells for Mormons. They might say “well we don’t have a theology, we have revelation,” or something like that, and since you’re a theologian, given your background, I’m really interested to hear what theology means to you and how you became interested in it.
Bernard McGinn: Yes, well, you know, all Christians and many other religions like Judaism and Islam have a revelation, we all enjoy some revelation from God. Theology means thinking and talking about that revelation, and about the faith that you have. So in terms of the origin of the word, it’s just a Greek word [combining theos and] logos, or word about God. Any time that any believers in any tradition are talking about their revelation, the belief that’s fundamental to their lives—talking about it, thinking about it, writing about it—they’re doing theology, whether they want to call it theology or not. So it’s a broad term, and I think there’s Jewish theology, there’s Islamic theology, there are certainly Christian theologies, and I think Mormons who are seriously devoted to thinking and writing about their own revelation are doing theology—Mormon theology.
BHodges: There’s a certain caricature of theology, and especially scholastic theology, and that is that its sole purpose is to nail down the answer to every single question or to have this system in place that’s all perfect. But it seems that within Catholicism there was always at least a certain recognition that there would be open questions, there would be things to be discussed. They did have certain boundaries obviously; there was orthodoxy and heterodoxy. But also there seems to have been room for some different perspectives in the church. Is that accurate?
McGinn: I think that’s very accurate. And Thomas [Aquinas] always considered himself a theologian, and he always tried to be the best theologian he could be. He was always willing to engage in discussion about his views. At one stage he writes and says if you don’t agree with what I said, write against me because the only way to get to the truth is by really good discussion and argument, etcetera. So he’s always willing to be corrected if necessary, or to learn something new. And the structure of the Summa of course lends itself to the idea that somehow this is all cut and dry because it’s so academic. It was designed as this specific form of textbook. But as you begin reading it you see how many open questions there are both in terms of Thomas’s own views and also in terms of how we interpret some of the things that Thomas said. Thomas’s marvelously clear but we’re not always quite sure [laughs] what the best interpretation of his thought may be.
1. James E. Faulconer, “Why a Mormon Won’t Drink Coffee but Might Have a Coke: The Atheological Character of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” in Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010), 87–107.
3. Adam S. Miller, Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2012). See my review here and Miller’s brief piece in SquareTwo calling theology, which he does, “gratuitous.”
4. For instance, Blake T. Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God vol. 1 (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2001).
5. Terryl L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (New York: Oxford University Press, fall 2014).