Title: An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32
Editor: Adam S. Miller
Publisher: Salt Press
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?