Should Mormonism Have A Theology?

Does Mormonism have a theology? My gut response, as someone who reads 17th-century theological debate for fun, is to say “no.” We do not, as a people, engage in the sort of definitional arguments that characterize formal theology. Ask someone after sacrament meeting what kind of Christology Mormonism has and you’ll probably still make it to Sunday School on time (unless that someone is Blake Ostler). This isn’t to say that your typical Mormon is stupid for not knowing what Christology is, or for not being able to place Mormon belief within the historical arguments about it. The typical Catholic probably couldn’t do that either. The difference is that Catholicism has a long history of philosophical engagement with these questions, and Mormonism doesn’t. Our engagement tends to be more ad hoc, with an Orson Pratt here and a Sterling McMurrin there. At present, in addition to Ostler (and approaching theology in a quite different way), we have the triumvirate of Jim Faulconer, Adam Miller, and Joseph Spencer.

What’s interesting about Faulconer, Miller, and Spencer is that their work tends to actively resist the systematizing impulse that drove, say, Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin. Faulconer has argued that theology is dangerous, because, for instance, it was the theologizing impulse that led us to rationalize the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood in harmful, racist, and ultimately untrue ways. For him, theology is more useful for exposing fault lines in our thinking than it is for attempting to articulate the sum of all truth. “Perhaps God,” he writes, “could give us a list of the elements of pure doctrine, though whether he would is another question.” Theology is useful only insofar as it leads us to see what we do not know and seek continuing revelation.

This attitude places Faulconer in a long line of apophatic, or negative, theologians. The simple version of this approach is that we cannot say what God is with any certainty, but we can be more confident about at least some things that God is not. Hence, Adam Miller constructs theological Rube Goldberg machines instead of finely engineered systematic theologies.

A major influence on the current approach to apophatic theology is the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who died ten years ago today. An important trio of books published in 1967—Speech and Phenomena, Of Grammatology, and Writing and Difference—put some of Derrida’s key arguments into play, among them the antifoundationalist idea that there is no transcendental (or theological) perspective that can comprehend the totality of linguistic meaning or firmly ground the meanings of individual words. This idea then led to the related concepts of différance, or the perpetual deferral of meaning, and the supplement, or the idea that every word depends for its meaning on something outside itself that supplements and then supplants the original. Language only ever refers to other language (there is nothing outside the text), and meaning, instead of being fixed and stable, becomes subject to a constant play.

That Derrida’s insights about language apply to Mormonism appears in the surprising statement by one of its most ardent systematizers, Bruce R. McConkie, in the wake of the 1978 revelation on priesthood:

Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whosoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that has now come into the world. [1]

Admittedly, McConkie probably did not understand this statement as pointing logically toward antifoundationalist conclusions, but it does strongly imply that human pretensions to certain knowledge of anything are just that: pretensions. As Isaiah wrote, God’s ways are higher than our ways, signifying that we live in a mysterious world where, like when the Pharisees confronted Jesus, the question of by what authority things happen remains painfully unresolved.

In keeping with the history of apophatic theologies, perhaps the most likely path for a post-Derridean religion is mysticism. The mystic seeks transcendental experience instead of transcendental logic, aiming for that which tongue hath not spoken nor ear heard and knowing little more than that God loves her. With the Psalmist, she acknowledges that the face of God is often hidden, and that her prayers are words of hope launched into the abyss. Amidst experienced absence, we nevertheless cry, “O God, where art thou?” [2]

Derrida “rightly passed for an atheist,” although, unsurprisingly, he troubled the distinction between atheism and belief. Indeed, he suggested that people have to pass as closely to atheism as possible in order to believe in God. May we who desire to believe learn from his relentless investigation into the architecture of uncertainty as we look for God with mortal eyes that can only see through a glass, darkly—eyes that may, in fact, have to see the darkness before they can see God.

mormon_lectionary-100x100px-rgbaMormon Lectionary Project

Jacques Derrida, 2004

The Collect: O God the Great Unknown, by the grace of Jesus Christ open our eyes that we might see our blindness; grant also that we, as perpetual searchers in the mysteries of thy Holy Spirit, might follow Jacques Derrida in pursuing thy hiddenness and that divine Oneness that so persistently eludes our mortal perceptions. Amen.

Isaiah 55; Psalm 143; Luke 20:1-81 Cor. 2; 1 Ne. 11:16-17; D&C 121:1-6

For the music, I couldn’t resist returning to an old favorite: the original acoustic version of “The Sound of Silence” from Simon and Garfunkel’s first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM.



[1] Quoted in Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake: Deseret, 2005), 238. Kimball notes that McConkie’s retraction of his prior views may have been limited to his notion of when the curse would be lifted, not necessarily extending to the entire curse-of-Cain structure that backed his belief in the restriction.

[2] Kevin Hart explores the mystical possibilities of Derridean religion in The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology, and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).


  1. Very nicely written, Jason. I was never a major fan of Derrida’s writings–I was never able to get past the notion that there was something fundamentally unserious about his play, something that lowered the stakes for the very idea of meaning–but many of my friends and teachers were deeply appreciative of his ideas, and I have to respect that what they saw in his writings quite likely reflected a truer engagement with his philosophy than I was ever capable of. Jim Faulconer made a persuasive case for Derrida as a negative theologian, and for “deconstruction” as a genuinely meaningful approach to thinking about the divine, in an old essay of his which I quoted extensively in my own tribute to Derrida ten years ago, here; it may be still worth a read (Jim’s original can be found on his page here).

  2. Mormons like Muslims and Jews tend to focus much more on orthopraxy than orthodoxy. In other words it is far more important to us what we do than what we believe. Looking at our temple recommend questions reveals this as there are only the most basic statements of faith and detailed questions of behavior. Joseph Smith eschewed creeds and dogma. To him God was something to be experianced. He declared looking into heaven for five minutes would teach a man more than reading volumes. Theology as it is understood by most is a product of our science obsessed society and does not at all reflect Biblical or even Book of Mormon thought on God. Personally I will stick with a God that can awe rather than one that can be placed in a framework.

  3. And yet, Gilgamesh, placing far more importance on what we do than what we believe leads (in my view) to the terribly superficial problem of a Pharisee-like people – the risk that outward acts and behavior alone can be vaunted & followed no matter the state of our heart – even with a cold or unchanged heart – indistinguishable states of hearts so long as we’re outwardly conforming to rules and procedures. The reality as I understand it, is that the state of our hearts toward God means EVERYTHING – it’s the prime indicator of our love of God (which is shown by our love of others).

    My favorite quote about lack of systems/theology in the gospel comes from a retired BYU philosophy professor who would not want to be named (but he is friends with Jim Faulconer): “I’m convinced that the gospel is so rich that all attempts to reduce it to a system must fail. For it is reality itself, seen through the pure eyes of our God, transmitted to us in language we can understand, in pieces we can handle.”

  4. I like the idea of an apophatic theology; it reminds me a little bit of what Michelangelo is supposed to have said about sculpting an angel. If we can carve away a bunch of things that God, or Christ, or the Holy Ghost, are not, what is left is a little bit closer to what they are. (Even if we lack the maestro’s touch with the chisel.)

    Reading the efforts of “traditional” Christians to categorize our Christology, or our theology in general, is a little frustrating – probably more to them than to me, although most of them seem to be less concerned about accuracy than I am, or perhaps it’s just because we don’t get pinned down so easily. We’re Arians in broad terms, but not really; Semipelagian, but with a slightly different (non-magical) understanding of grace; blah blah blah. We’re a little drop of theological mercury that keeps squittering around the desk no matter how hard they try to grasp it.

    For that matter, our efforts to discuss and understand them are hampered as well. Pre- or post-millennial Rapture, or no Rapture? Eternal security, Free Grace, or Assurance? Predestination or free will? (We really have a different definition of this one.) Annihilationist or conscious continuation? It doesn’t help that for each modern Protestant sect, “Christian” means “someone who believes like me.” I had a high school friend who once said, “I was a Lutheran before I became a Christian.” We have, in general, beliefs that either straddle or avoid completely many of the major disagreements of modern Christian theology.

    My own background in this is not terribly rigorous and is more historical than strictly theological, but I usually tell educated people that we don’t mess around with all those labels – I’ll just try to tell you what we believe about God and you see if it makes sense to you. That may be one reason why the Church made so much sense to me when I first encountered it.

  5. Wonderful contemplation, Jason! Perhaps ironically, this post might be the most “Mormon” of all the posts in the lectionary project so far because it truly exemplifies the injunction to gather truth from all quarters, from all sources, whatever they might be. Gather the true principles into our storehouse of knowledge and consecrate it to the whole.

    Yes, Derrida’s lifelong investigations and examinations into these issues must also be circumscribed into the great Whole that is One with our faith and the knowledge that we hope to acquire so that it can rise with us in the resurrection.

    You will certainly encounter some who question your choice to include someone who likely considered himself a committed atheist in the lectionary project. How can such an inclusion work to increase the faith of a Mormon readership? This post makes clear that this is possible and, I believe, necessary, if we are to take the Lord at his word that He will make all things work to our benefit and if we are to embrace our obligation to search out and acquire Truth wherever it might be found.

    I am very impressed with how you’ve found a key to the impossibility of a systematized theology in Mormonism in some of the theories and analysis suggested by Derrida. I think this works. I am also grateful for your distillation of some of Jim Faulconer’s ideas, especially that “[t]heology is useful only insofar as it leads us to see what we do not know and seek continuing revelation.”

  6. “transmitted to us in language we can understand, in pieces we can handle”

    Jen K., this is a point that can perhaps be informed by bringing Derrida into the picture, don’t you think? And perhaps it is a correct inference from this application that many might have to see darkness before they see God. At least we know this was true of Alma the Younger and Paul. And surely countless others — possibly including Joseph Smith if it is possible to place his youthful questioning and then supernatural encounter before receiving the First Vision into this framework.

  7. If you want “language we can understand,” you probably shouldn’t go to Derrida or any other French philosopher.


  8. I can generally see two different reasons for a church to be atheological. First, the concepts are so large, moving, and beyond human reasoning that they couldn’t possibly be systematized into a rational system. Second, the source material or ingredients that would-be theologians have to work with can’t possibly be put into a coherent system because they simply aren’t coherent or can’t possibly be right.

    I have absolutely no idea how to tell the difference between a religion of the first category and a religion of the second category.

  9. Russell: thanks for your comment, which I’m very glad to have leading off this discussion. Andrew S’s “zing” is plenty apt, as anyone who’s read Derrida knows, so your narrative of being helped toward an appreciation of him as a negative theologian is most welcome.

    Jen K’s point is quite Derridean, it seems to me. We want to treat actions as somehow exempt from the problem of representation, and they simply aren’t. The quest for true meaning just keeps getting deferred to the next place we want to look.

    john f: I certainly hope that this post accepts that Derrida on his own terms has a contribution to make to Mormonism, without our needing to make a Mormon out of him. It’s very heartening to me that you find it successful on that front, and I appreciate your defense of its inclusion.

    New Iconoclast and Syphax seem to be probing similar territory, with Syphax adding the second category and the indeterminacy of the situation. I think that these comments in tandem get at the simultaneous value and danger of theology. After all, on a certain level we can’t help theologizing: we instinctively find patterns and work to make sense of the world. Derrida’s value-add here lies in his comment about believers needing to approach as nearly as possible to atheism. Since we inevitably theologize, we also need to relentlessly critique our theologies.

    This can get exhausting, of course, and I’m sure that Derrida would find some fun way of undermining any attempt to get too dogmatic about it.

  10. Louise Lee says:

    I enjoyed this Jason…the closer it gets to my 88th year on this planet….what I value most .. are my children.. my Darryl, who was handed to me in the parking lot of the Safeway Division office
    in San Francisco, Ca. when he was 3 days old…4 years later I had my Davey, when he was almost 3 I had my Cheryl…..and when she was 5 I adopted my Danny when he was 4 days old…so these 4 make my life quite wonderful…and when you add beautiful Bonnie Lee…Life gets even better….I attended St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas for 2 years,,,taught by the
    Brothers (not the Jesuits).. but the prayers all remain in my head and I can still rattle them off all
    these years later…But, I love the fact we do have a Bishop that doesn’t get paid… Explaining this to my neighbor…she asked: “But then, how does he live”?? I remember at our Ward in Concord, California.. Don Lind (the Astronaut) said in Church one day..”If I ever lose my testimony, I’m not
    going to tell anyone because I LIKE Mormons” me too

  11. In the latter days, every man can speak in the name of God, according to God Himself as quoted in D&C 1.

  12. I always like to say that the LDS scriptural canon is the only “official” source of doctrine for the belief and practice of LDS Church members, but, I will not say there is, and have never known there to be, a defined or prescribed set of “official” LDS Mormon doctrines. Nor do I think there can be. The scriptural canon is an open canon and the heavens are not closed for business. Thank heavens!

  13. Olde Skool says:

    Jason, I love this post (appropriately) beyond words. While I would certainly agree that Mormonism doesn’t have a systematic theology—and all for the good that lack!—I would argue nevertheless that Mormonism’s God operates within a set of canonically-derived conditions that functionally frame out a de facto theology: God is not extramaterial (that is, God is in some sense embodied); God’s omnipotence is limited by a principle of radical agency; God is in some way experientially fit for infinite compassion; God is in some way parental. The details are, again happily, not Thomistically parsed by some sanctioned and stable central authority (McConkie’s efforts may have been embraced by many members as definitive, but I’ve never had a sense that the institution intended or endorsed that, and it seems that McConkie didn’t either), but these conditions seem to me to triangulate a theology—a theology that persists as a drone beneath the various (and inevitable) revisions and vacillations of doctrine. That triangulated position doesn’t yield the kind of fix that a systematic theology may seek to provide, but to my mind it’s the triangulation that turns the attention toward itself, in part because of its simultaneity of the elusive and the suggestive: uncertainty, yes, but not so uncertain that I don’t even bother looking. God bless Jacques Derrida, intercessor for the illegible.

  14. Olde Skool: thanks for this thoughtful reply, which makes the useful (and, to my mind, correct) distinction between not having a systematic theology and being completely atheological. The underlying drone, as you put it, amounts to a theology that is probabilistic rather than altogether positive, a kind of quantum cloud of things that we’re pretty sure are in there, but that we can’t quite pin down.

    Also, “intercessor for the illegible” is the best line I’ve read all day.

  15. I didn’t have a chance to read through all the comments, so sorry if I repeat an observation already made. I’ve been thinking lately a lot about mysticism (something I used to eschew), but the Mormon experience feels more and more mystic to me. There’s the ineffable aspect—which is why it can be difficult to explain what the Spirit feels like—but there’s also, and very deeply, the mystic idea that we have the seeds of godhood in us. I’ve been reading more Derrida lately and I’m thrilled to learn that there are non-academic Mormons that are getting into deconstruction—not that there’s anything wrong with academics working with the stuff; I’m just glad Derrida isn’t limited to Mormons at universities.

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