Who Can Say Something New?

Who can say something new?

Is Mormon theology, as an academic project, possible for Mormons committed to the primacy of revelation and prophetic leadership?

It depends on what you mean by new.

Who can say something new for Mormonism?

Only those called by God and sustained by the common consent of the church. No Mormon theologian, as a scholar, should ever attempt to speak for Mormonism.

But this is not the question at stake in scholarship. The question at stake in scholarship is this:

Who can say something new about Mormonism?

The answer to this question is very different. Anyone willing to pay enough attention to make an observation can say something new about Mormonism.

Theologically, these observations about Mormonism can be new in one of two ways. (1) They may be new because they have noticed something about Mormonism proper that has gone unnoticed. Or (2) they may generate new material because they put Mormonism in dialogue with other cultures, religions, philosophies, and theologies.

The first kind of work is important but this second kind of exploratory, bridge-building work is what’s crucial to the future of scholarly work on Mormon theology.

The key to understanding the relationship of this exploratory work to Mormonism itself is a recognition of its fundamentally hypothetical character.

The theologian decides nothing for the tradition.

Rather, the theologian, by putting Mormon ideas in dialogue with other traditions, poses a hypothetical question: if we put Mormon idea X into dialogue with non-Mormon idea Y, then what could we say that is new? What are the points of resonance? What are the points of divergence?

What can be observed about Mormonism that couldn’t be observed without this new set of non-Mormon eyes? What kind of hybrid results?

It is the explicitly hypothetical character of this work that makes theology, as a scholarly project, viable for Mormonism.

This scholarship may serve as raw material to which the tradition itself may eventually respond, but those decisions are up to the tradition, not the scholar.

As a result, in one really important sense, the specific content of the work of the theologian is immaterial to the tradition itself.

But in a second sense, if, in general, the hypothetical work of the theologian is not a live possibility for the tradition, then the tradition itself risks a kind of isolation and self-absorption that is incompatible with the outward facing orientation of a disciple of Christ.


  1. You lose me at equating “Mormonism” with “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” If we’re just talking about the church proper, sure, only church leaders can speak for the church. But mormonism is broader than the church. It includes many break-offs such as the FLDS and even John Dehlin. So I’m not convinced that anyone can speak *for* mormonism – except maybe in a Lorax sort of way.

    FWIW, the church tried (and failed) to obtain a trademark registration for “Mormon”. It was successful for other terms such as “Mormon Tabernacle Choir”, but apparently couldn’t demonstrate to the US trademark office that the general public associates “Mormon” with the church.

  2. I am wondering if anyone can explain or expand upon, the meaning of this sentence;

    “Only those called by God and sustained by the common consent of the church.”

  3. I like it, Adam. I like the succinctness of it, the implicit invitation, and the explicit stakes. You should send it around in future theology seminars.

  4. Jason K. says:

    I especially appreciate the call to learn about non-Mormon things as a way of coming to see Mormonism in new ways.

  5. Sheldon Lawrence says:

    I never really understood English until I learned a foreign language. It’s been the same with religion. For the past few years I’ve been interested in the intersections between Mormonism and ancient Yogic/Hindu thought–something I’ve thought of as an odd intellectual hobby. But I like how your post suggests such things are a legitimate (maybe the best) approach to theology.

  6. Here are the thinkers I’d like to have come into dialogue with aspects of Mormonism:

    Looking at the Red Book and The Book of Mormon. Considering transmission of unconscious processes (regardless of strictly mythic or historical categories) as translation of spiritual truth.
    Personal and collective shadow and the personal and collective “natural man” which is an enemy to God. Can Jung’s pscyhology of individuation and integration help us understand how to relate to our given natural man who is an enemy to god unless…

    Epistemology and testimony. Rely on the ritical test vs ever shifting/crumbling/building paradigms vs. anything goes. How does testimony work?

    Alan Watts:
    Now is the time (is the beginning, the end, and eternity already happening?, is the milennium and zion already here?, can we find it when we stop looking into the future or the past?)

  7. What’s new about Mormonism is the collective knowledge and growth presents a perspective and understanding the rest of christiandom does not have, as well as most Mormons. Break offs and apostates have nothing to offer to improve anything. The fact is that the church is not for everyone. It never has been anciently and the same is true today. But salvation is for everyone. It is based on each person on this earth living according to the knowledge he truly believes. See, even the very elect will be deceived. How do I know that is not me? I don’t. But what the gospel shows is that God can judge our integrity no matter what our beliefs are. If we are true to what we really believe, all is truly well with us. This is the final chapter and accumulation of knowledge, perspective, and peace that Mormonism offers.

  8. Professing themselves to be wise they became fool. Stop looking beyond the mark!

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