Female Priests Among Christians and Mormons, Part 4

[You can find the whole series here.]
I want to turn to theological issues now. As before, this continues to be merely my own thought process. I’m not seeking to be rigorous—I’m not going to multiply footnotes and references. That’s the hard work someone else can do. Here I’m just interested in exploring what I think and, of course, what you think as you respond in the comments.

Theology. This is a word that carries different loads across the strata of Christianity (here I do include Mormonism because that’s where it belongs). Among Mormons, the idea of theologians has generated suspicion largely for two reasons: training and freedom. Theologians are generally expected to acquire university training like any professional or professorial discipline. And that sticks in the craw of historical Mormonism which has placed the schools at least partly at odds with the lay clergy (even at the highest level). Here I use “lay clergy” in somewhat different way than just “unpaid.” The Protestant claim that one must be “trained for the ministry” was heartily laughed at among early Mormon preachers and that laughter was encoded in its most sacred spaces for long years (it’s not anymore but that hasn’t changed the fear factors). Boyd K. Packer’s famous speech, “The Mantle is Far Far Greater Than the Intellect” was a summary and a continuing voice from the Mormon minaret that hasn’t changed. In some sense, the Mormon stratification of Revelation over Reason is at the source of theological fear. As J. Reuben Clark feared PhDs in Mormon education and religious education the place of the academic theologian within Mormonism was not just one of rank but exclusion to a zone of non-church venues (and maybe exclusion altogether). That exclusion stems from the freedom mentioned above. Theologians are free to logic their way around the pillars of belief, employing critical methods where others might fear to tread. I won’t explore the “amateur vs. professional” angle in theological thinking here but it’s obvious that Mormonism has had its share of influential theological thinkers: B. H. Roberts, Orson and Parley Pratt, and so on.

So how do theologians participate in the religious dialogues of Mormonism and Christianity in general? I want to approach this a little in the next post but feel free to offer up your own wisdom below. This all will come back to the main topic eventually.


  1. I wonder who counts as a theologian in (Brighamite) mormonism (and to whom)? Sterling McMurrin? James Faulconer? Blake Ostler? Joseph Spencer? Jeffrey Holland?

  2. Good question. In some way, they all count I think. Faulconer expressed the point of view that theologians have little place in TCoJCoLDS. At least that’s what my fading memory says.

  3. In Mormonism, at least The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint stripe, I think theologians come in some combination of four types:
    –Devotional, i.e., contributing to the way members think about things, making it deeper and more meaningful one person at a time.
    –Apologetic, i.e., backfilling and explaining things as they are proclaimed by ecclesiastical leaders.
    –Speculative, i.e., mining the many threads of Mormon thought, largely historical, to piece together a picture that fits the evidence and fills in the gaps.
    –Constructive, i.e., building up a model of what might be, what might make sense, in the near future. Typically pitched at the level of “something to think about” for ecclesiastical leaders.

    I think only the Constructive has any influence on the Church’s future (hence my choice of label). At the same time, I think even the Constructive type will never be given credit.

    A modest case in point–I find people fascinated by the question whether or how much influence to ascribe to Lester Bush’ “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview.”

  4. When I first started investigating the church I felt like Dorothy when she first arrive in Oz. Nothing made sense. I had the kindest (and most long-suffering!!!) guides to help me, but everything was strange. And a big part of why is exactly what you’re talking about here.

    In my previous church experience one could easily find multiple people in any congregation who had advanced theological training, usually in the form of a Master of Divinity, a 4-year masters degree which teaches theology in addition to ancient languages, hermeneutics, philosophy and more. In my last church (of about 300) there were 15 people who had a MDiv, and none of them worked for the church. They work normal jobs, they just love theology. But in the LDS church there is no equivalent and even if there were, one wouldn’t find a dozen of them sitting in one ward.

    So, when questions would arise for me, many people would refer me to various conference talks. And while they are always lovely and faith building, they are not theology proper. On my more cynical days I felt like I was asking really hard existential questions, and someone was handing me a puppy. The funny thing is that a puppy kind of does solve an existential crisis, at least for a moment. But I continued to feel somewhat confused at exactly HOW questions are answered in this church.

    The other difficulty in the LDS church is that no one studies philosophy, and most seem to have suspicion of it. But its impossible to understand theology (and the history of theological ideas) without an underpinning of philosophy (and its history of ideas). But in the mainstream Church, philosophy and theology are kissing cousins. Not in a bad way. But in a way where understanding philosophy helps one understand where ideas are coming from.

    I have very few beefs with our religion, but I do have a few with our culture, and one of them is the constant suspicion on sources that are not produced by the church. Recently I attended Education. It was wonderful getting to meet other intellectuals who are interested in having a thinking-faith. But even still among that group there would be the question given, “But the first presidency didn’t approve this? Right?” or , “But this isn’t put out by the church?” And this was at Ed Week. It’s hard to have both theologians and a prophet. I love having a Prophet (past-Jennifer would be horrified at current-Jennifer, by the way) but the spiritual freedom of having a prophet seems to cramp the intellectual freedom of having theologians and that is as hard for me to juggle as being a religious woman. And yet still, no regrets.

  5. Jennifer, Not “no one”. But yes, there is among many a suspicion of “philosophy” — perhaps largely for not understanding what it is or when they are doing it themselves. I recall one BYU philosophy professor telling me of an occasion when someone from the religion department was needling him about teaching “philosophies of men.” His response (with a smile): “Yes, I teach about philosophies of men, but I don’t teach philosophies of men mingled with scripture like you do.” Many do not even begin to grasp the extent to which the world views of the writers of scripture inform what they wrote or the extent to which the readers’ own world views and language limitations inform what they think those scriptures mean. At least decades ago, that failure was rampant in the BYU religion department. It takes effort and time to overcome a sometimes fearful popular culture. It’s not a project I would expect the general populace of the Church to take on.

  6. My question recently has been, Why do we have theology (and theologians) at all? The obvious answer is that God’s revelations about himself and his expectations (and plans) for us have been everything but clear. Why his revelations have been so opaque is just another question for theologians to puzzle over. If he had revealed just a few things in great clarity, we would have little need for theologians or their multiple theologies. But since we are really clueless about who and what God is (we’re generally very overcongratulatory about our LDS store of knowledge), what our relationship to him is, and what he expects of us, we devise all manner of theologies. Most of what we assume we know is not revealed but is arrived at by human reasoning about some very murky or contradictory statements human prophets have claimed were the word of God.

  7. Wally – Isnt that true for a lot of subjects though? We BARELY understand anything about the brain. When I took my first psychology class in the late 1980’s I was taught that the human brain is fully formed by age 5, but we know today that its not fully formed until the early 20’s. Just because we’re going to get some things in theology wrong doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. When I was receiving my theological education one of the first books we were required to read was something like, “Lessons for Young Theologians” and the whole point of the book was to not be afraid of what we can’t know and afraid of making mistakes, but to use that energy towards a curiosity that can result in asking better questions. One of my professors was fond of saying, “You’re a fool if you try to understand something this big – but you’re a coward if you don’t.”

  8. JR – Ha! That is hysterical. I agree with you, there is no theology without philosophy. I get the danger of, “philosophies of men”, I really do….but anyone who thinks they are unaffected by philosophy (and its history) is kidding themselves. I think its better to understand philosophy so that we can see its impact, than to be impacted by it unaware.

  9. At the local level I think Mormon theologians are the people who have a pet doctrine and who are vocal about it. Every stake has a very dedicated food storage specialist, musician, family history leader, etc that the rest of the stake recognizes as the go-to person for that niche of Mormonism.

    BYU religion professors (and maybe best selling Deseret Bookstore authors??) may be the closest we have to theologians. Most of them seem to have PhDs or Masters degrees in History, English, but not theology.

    As a lifelong Mormon, my experience is absolutely that we don’t trust academics. If I had a dollar for every time someone said “look at all Joseph Smith did and he didn’t have an education” I could send my kids to college.

  10. Toad – Interestingly enough my experience has been different. The people who I would call theologians in my local area are mostly very quiet older men who I only get access to by introduction. And I usually have to prove to them that I have the background to understand what they are going to say – Im not sure if this is because I’m a new convert, or because I’m a woman, or both.

    In general, women in this church are not the least bit interested in theology, or academics or history. Those that are seem to be coming from, in my opinion, a more critical perspective. I don’t mind that perspective necessarily, but I prefer a perspective that takes all the complexities and anguish of history, theology, philosophy, psychology and academics, but still lands on faith. So, I am often left with male conversation partners….which takes us back to the anxieties about men and women.

  11. Nice thoughts all. Christian. I approach a little of what you state in the next part.

  12. I sometimes think of Mormon theology in terms of a rough taxonomy of four categories. This taxonomy is primarily historical, as opposed to the thematic taxonomy that christiankimball describes above.

    The first category is the theology of the 19th century, which was driven by Joseph Smith’s visionary ideas. The theology of this period was continued through approximately the end of the century, mostly by people who knew Joseph personally and saw themselves as building on a legacy to which they had originally contributed. The visionary fire of this original period eventually faded.

    The second category might be called the folk theology of the twentieth century. This is the type of theology done by amateur writers who are enthusiastic about Mormon ideas from the nineteenth century. It is the type of theology done by old high priests who have spent a lifetime reading about their religion. It is also the pseudo-scholarship that is traditionally most common in Church religion departments and seminaries.

    The third category is academic theology. This is theology done by scholars who have serious academic training in philosophy and history, and who believe that this training should inform creative work in theology. This category started to emerge in a serious way when it got a platform from the independent Mormon journals that were founded in the 1960’s and 70’s. It is still a very young field.

    The fourth category is the theology of the contemporary hierarchical Church. This is the theology of Church correlation. It is the product of our modern conflation of revelation and policy. In this approach to theology, we have ad hoc emphases on doctrine driven by the current needs of the organizational Church.

  13. Jennifer Roach, my daughter is interested in all the things you talk about. She is a Classics major, and may end up going down the path of academic, from the Classical era through the Renaissance. Just so you know there is one young female academic type. She probably won’t get a degree in divinity, but religions and cultures of the Mediterranean is one possible area of focus, especially where there are Latin and Greek documents. She wants to learn Koine Greek to read the NT and has been reading the Vulgate for some time. IDK what that does for Mormon theology, but historical Christianity is more her academic interest. Rome, then and now. Etc.

  14. Star – it sounds like you have raised a fascinating daughter!
    I have always been interested in the Church Fathers (the teachers of the church from the first 3 or 4 centuries, in and out of Rome) and have recently become fascinated anew after listening to Dr. Stephen Ricks at Education Week. He taught daily about the things which the church Fathers taught that were lost when the Creeds were finalized, but are being taught again now in the restoration. I knew some of this existed, especially about baptism for the dead, but Ricks really opened up the topic for me. So, its back to the Classical era I go to study anew. If she is interested at all in the intersection of classical Christianity and Mormon Christianity it is a rich area of study that needs more work.

  15. Jennifer,
    God wants us to learn something from the puppy model:

    Let thy bowels be full of charity to all men…. then the doctrines of the priesthood shall distill upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.

    The church has often taught doctrinal, existential truths, or whatever you want to call them (the things both beyond and the why’s and what fors of repentance and faith, etc.)

    But the reality is, in all cases, before those doctrinal truths can become part of us (distill upon your soul), we need to become Christlike. We need to learn to love and serve as he did and even still does. We need to not just “do it”, but have our very essence filled with it.

    That’s why the conference talks often give us more puppies than theology. The theology is certainly there though, but we can’t skip over becoming like Christ.

  16. a.eon, thank you. I am trying very hard to learn. And I do love puppies.

  17. I can’t help but think of the recent Fair Mormon Conference Podcast by Don Bradley where he talks about how his academic study of Joseph Smith lead him out of activity, and then back into activity in the church. I think that certain Apostles hear enough of the “academics going inactive” stories that they’re putting the horse before the cart, and in their desire to shield everyone from inactivity, they blame academic studying of the gospel. This then seeps down to the membership in general.
    During last Sunday’s Sunday School, the answer given in the lesson were (in my mind) so primary and simple, I was afraid to contribute to the lesson because I felt that it would have been a great disruption compared to what was going. I don’t have any formal training in theology, but I feel that I read non-devotional sources enough to see that there is a gap of knowledge in what could be talked about, and what is talked about.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    Star, you may be interested to know I did my undergrad in classics at BYU in the early 80s. For me at least it was an outstanding academic preparation for the rest of my life. Cheers to your daughter!

  19. Observer of Faith says:

    A hunger for theology (and utilizing advancing biblical translations) was part of leading me, and adult convert from Catholicism, to leave. Spiritual practices from varied faith traditions, meditation, and studying the books that failed to make the “cut” of the published bible had a way of bringing me to Christ that 20 years of Sunday School could not. I feel that Christ reaches us in the way that is best for each. A speaking GA in GC once hit upon this in a way that excited/energized no small segment of the LDS faithful, but his talk was retracted/re-recorded. I thank god for the invention of the VCR.

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