Does Mormonism Have (a) Theology(ies)?

December 7, 2007    By: Blake @ 11:09 pm   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices,Theology

I have heard it said that Mormonism has no theology. I wonder what such a claim could mean. This claim has been made by such luminaries as James Faulconer and Richard Bushman. What does such a claim mean? Perhaps they mean that theology is an attempt to understand God in human terms and there can be no such understanding. Do they mean that all that we can do is kneel and genuflect (ritual means are all that we have)? Do they mean that when speaking of God we have no more than mindless babble (the human mind is so impotent that the attempt to reason about revelation is simply foolishness)?

Certainly they are correct if what they mean is that we can have no systematic theology that is somehow complete and self-contained. Sometimes I believe that what they mean by “theology” is a complete and exhaustive theology that is totally logically consistent like Thomas Aquinas (and several others) attempted. If that is what “theology” means, then Mormons don’t do theology. The fact of ongoing revelation means that we must always be open to more and to be willing to be corrected based on an incomplete understanding. Our theology is always tentative like science. It is always subject to revision. Perhaps they mean that all theology is alway premature given this commitment to God who is still speaking and theology is like drawing conclusions before God’s speech is done. We cannot do a book review of God’s book because he is still writing even though it went to press. If that is what they mean, then they are surely correct.

Yet that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a theology. It means that our theology is appropriately tentative and conditioned on willingness to reassess in the context of further light and knowledge when we receive it. In fact, I don’t see how they can mean that we just don’t have a theology in its most relevant sense. Let me explain.

What is theology? Theology is the attempt to make sense of our world given what has been revealed. It means giving meaning to our lives in light of the light and knowledge that has been vouschafed to us. Theology is the attempt to negotiate the world and to convey some sense of what we grasp in light of what we accept as revelation from God. In this sense, theology seems to me to be inevitable. Inevitably we will have a world view(s) that we bring to our attempt to negotiate reality. That view which makes the most sense of our experience, which gives the greatest and most worthy meaning to our lives, is the best theology. That which calls to the highest in us based on what God reveals to us is the best theology. Yet it can only call to us if it is a live option(s) that makes some sense in the total context of our lives emotionally, physically, socially, spiritually and in terms of the mind. We cannot avoid this attempt to find meaning in our lives or to give sense to negotiate our world. If that world includes God, we are called to make sense of what we experience with the commitment that God is nevertheless demanding our worship, or ruling the world, or teaching us lessons, or challenging us, or that God is still in charge even in light of unspeakably horrible evils or so forth. In our experience, we will give and find meaning that is assumed and that we are called to contemplate, meditate, engage and struggle with. We will do theology just because we are human.

Do they mean that Mormonism is just hopelessly incomplete and it gives no such meaning to our lives? Do they mean that we cannot put together anything like a coherent world view and so much rest satisfied with what otherwise appears wildly incoherent? Anything we believe could be true because human reason is so impotent that to engage it is a mistake? Such an approach smacks of the irony winking at us in a conversation that Orson Scott Card published today: Traditional Christian (TC): “The Trinity consists of three parallel lines, which touch each other. LDS: If they touch each other, they’re not parallel lines. TC: Nevertheless, they are parallel, and they touch. They touch at every point. LDS: If they touch at every point, they’re the same line, not three. TC: They touch at every point, yet they are three lines. LDS: That doesn’t make sense. Lines can’t be different yet the same, parallel yet intersecting. The words stop having any meaning when you say such things. TC: That’s because you have a finite, mortal mind, which cannot comprehend the nature of geometry. LDS: That’s just crazy. The Trinity is three lines, completely distinct, perfectly parallel, so they go infinitely in the same direction. That’s simple, it’s clear, and it’s true. In fact, we’ve seen the lines. TC: That’s blasphemy! You can never see the lines! They’re only imaginary! LDS: Your lines are imaginary. The lines we’ve seen are real. TC: Then you are not Geometers!”

Do those who deny that we have a theology deny that we make claims about the distinctness of the persons in the Godhead? That is theology. Do they deny that we make claims about God becoming man? That is theology. The attempt to makes sense of the most basic claims of the faith, to even attempt to grasp what those claims mean and assert, is theology. How could we avoid that? Do they imagine that we can be satisfied with three lines that are parallel but that share all of their points in common? That just isn’t Mormonism.

Perhaps what they mean is that we do theology differently. Instead of attempting to use the impotent powers of the mind to reason, they mean that we tell stories as the way we do theology. Do they mean that we have only stories — with infinite play and no discernible meaning beyond the story itself? Such a vacuum of meaning seems to me to be impossible. The world view that the story interacts with is a theology — and I don’t mean to reject all forms of narrative theology. What I suggest is that narrative is not enough. A story without some underlying world view against which it interacts has no meaning. The critical assessment of the world view of the story is theology. Moreover, Mormons aren’t alone in engaging stories. Yet the claim that God has a body of flesh and bone, that the persons of the Godhead are distinct and not merely one substance, that God cares about us and feels and cries — these aren’t just stories. They are claims that engage theology in numerous senses. We must remain open to learn what we mean more fully, but we must be willing to embrace what we grasp of these claims as well. It seems we have a sort of theology which we want to be reasonable and at least possibly true (not logically incoherent or demonstrably false).

In the end, theology is the attempt to make sense of the faith we have received in terms that make it meaningful in the world and time in which we live, move and have our being. It is the insistence that if we end up with three parallel lines that have all of their points in common, it is time to drink more deeply of the revelations and go back to the drawing board to start aright again.

44 Comments »

  1. I do think that those who say Mormonism doesn’t have theology are saying two things. At least one of them you mentioned. We don’t have a “systematic theology” that can be neatly examined. It is messy business with far more teachings that must be accepted than some think, and yet huge room for individual interpretations of those teachings. As someone said before, it really confuses those who do have a systematic theology who hear one Mormon insist on the importance of a certain doctrine and another shrug shoulders and not care. Yet, both of them are probably just as correct.

    Probably the second thing they mean is that there is no regulated body of authority who decides exactly what is doctrine. Sure, there are Prophets and Apostles who have authority to expound doctrine, but even they are sometimes in disagreement. That is why anti-Mormons love to point out contradictions in sermons. Coming from a systematic theological background that is how they think. On the other hand, those Mormons who don’t believe in systematic theology are not persuaded that contradictions are important for a functioning truth. If anything they are a source for personal reflection on the subject.

    Comment by Jettboy — December 8, 2007 @ 7:26 am

  2. Good observations, Jettboy.

    Blake wrote: Do they mean that we cannot put together anything like a coherent world view and so much rest satisfied with what otherwise appears wildly incoherent?

    Would Joseph Smith have said this about the Bible?

    Comment by Todd Wood — December 8, 2007 @ 10:44 am

  3. Todd,

    Joseph Smith did not think the Bible was incoherent, just that it contained occasional errors in translation – errors that he tried to correct with the JST.

    One thing that is not often recognized is that a large portion of LDS theology is derived from passages in the Bible that we take more literally and more seriously than conventional Christians.

    Baptism for the dead, the importance of the temple, the Abrahamic covenant, the scattering and gathering of Israel, the Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthoods, the idea that God has body, parts, and passions (why was Jesus resurrected if he doesn’t have a body anymore?), and so on.

    Comment by Mark D. — December 8, 2007 @ 11:02 am

  4. Good post Blake. I think you are right that we ought to be more precise when we talk about Mormonism and its’ theology/theologies. This whole subject is tied closely to your other recent post on how Mormonism has an interpretive tradition based on sacred texts.

    I think you are right in pointing out that those sacred texts give us as Mormons clear theological markers that separate us from all other Christian denominations (not to mention the fact that we have sacred texts that other denominations do not accept to begin with.) We are certainly not “a-theological” as some of the slimier of our critics like to claim. We just don’t have or claim to have an exhaustive and/or single systematic theology in Mormonism.

    In answer to some of your questions; I always assumed that is what folks like Jim Faulconer and R. Bushman meant when they have broadly claimed that Mormonism has “no theology” — that we differ from most creedal Christians in that we 1) Have a more open interpretive tradition than creedal Christians and 2) that we do not claim to have a systematic or exhaustive theology in the restored church. Indeed I think you are right that our theology has a lot in common with science in the sense that it remains tentative and open to revision based on the notion that further light and knowledge may become available to us in the future.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 8, 2007 @ 1:41 pm

  5. Blake,

    I talked with Jim Faulconer at some length on this subject over the summer (and I was able to hear Richard Bushman discuss it a little as well), and I think you are correct: when they say that Mormons do not have a theology they essentially mean Mormons do not have a systematic theology. But I think they are interpreting “theology” through the status quo meaning of theology, the traditional interpretation that theology simply IS systematic and one could not coherently consider it apart from a system. I’m sure they include much more than just this in their definition, but I think this is the core.

    I do believe, however, that while Mormon theology may not be inherently systematic, we nevertheless–at a corporate as well as an individual level–attempt to systematize it in some fashion. I think the theology found in your books is an example of this. Nevertheless, our attempts at systematization are very different from traditional theological systematics. When we systematize what we believe our theology to currently be, we are simply attempting to create an interpretive framework within which we can make sense of what we believe. “But isn’t that what the rest of the Christian world tries to do?” Yes and no. Formulating an interpretive theological framework is a necessary condition for systematic theologies, but it does not satisfy a sufficient condition. Systematic theologians ultimately want to “close out” their interpretation and erect an impenetrable theological fortress into which every belief can be appropriately funneled and stored. They see this as a genuine possibility because the Bible is the framework for their “complete” system. There is no possibility of revelatory additions to the canon and so they can work within this already potentially closed system which contains literal parameters and boundaries: Genesis 1 and Revelation 22. Mormons, however, do not theoretically have these same parameters, and so their theology could never be a closed system. Consequently, while there is room for vast interpretive differentiation within traditional Christianity, it pales in comparison to Mormonism.

    What further complicates things (and I’m really going out on a limb with this thought) is the possibility of Mormons–and perhaps especially their prophets, Joseph Smith being the premier example–exercising creative agency before a text, not just interpreting the text but shaping it in some way (here I am channeling Blake’s Expansion Theory and Kathleen Flake’s recent article on Joseph’s unique understanding of translation). Thus, interpretation of theology then becomes an even more fluid (and often confusing) process. However, it also has the potential to become, I believe, unbelievably spiritually empowering.

    Comment by Jacob B. — December 8, 2007 @ 3:59 pm

  6. “What is theology? Theology is the attempt to make sense of our world given what has been revealed.” Blake

    Using this concise definition of theology it is easy to say we have a theology. In my opinion it is a very simple issue to resolve. We turn to our handbook of theology: The Book of Mormon. There we learn two profound truths we can use to navigate this world. One, acquire the Holy Ghost—the 1st Comforter to guide us in our fallen condition. Two, come unto Christ and receive the 2nd Comforter where we are redeemed from the fall.

    This is the theology of the Book of Mormon in a nutshell, as I see it.

    Blake, thanks for your post.

    Comment by Jared — December 8, 2007 @ 4:28 pm

  7. If you can’t have theology without theologians, then it’s obvious why Mormonism lacks a true theology. Give it another fifty years and maybe we’ll get there. Who was the first true Christian theologian? Iraneus? Clement? Origen? If it took Christianity about two centuries to get to true theology, it seems reasonable it would take Mormons two centuries as well.

    And I’m not sure the claim that we use “narrative theology” means it isn’t still a candidate for systematic reworking. It still has to be coherent and consistent: competing narratives (such as the various versions of the First Vision) need to be reconciled. And principles or doctrines derived from whatever narratives are deemed foundational or canonical need to be compared and rendered consistent (or else restated to become so) in much the same way that principles or doctrines are analyzed in systematic theology.

    Comment by Dave — December 8, 2007 @ 4:32 pm

  8. I think what Jim means is that the emphasis in Mormon thought isn’t a set of propositions we have to believe or even a set of propositions about existence (as we find in say science). Rather the emphasis is on narrative and be-ing. (i.e. the verb) The emphasis is on us living our life.

    Which is not to say there aren’t theological aspects to Mormon thought occasionally. But, to say take the atonement, what is important in Mormon thought is our relationship with God and how that develops as we live our life rather than figuring out how it all works.

    I think this can (and has) be pushed too much. Clearly some theological notions help us in our lives. But clear propositions just aren’t the emphasis. Rather if a presentation is given it is with a “good enough” metaphor that breaks down when pushed too far. (As we find with scriptural discussion of the atonement typically)

    Comment by clark — December 8, 2007 @ 11:21 pm

  9. Jacob, interesting thoughts. (Sorry, I read the comments after posting) I agree to a point. And that point is where I think the attacks on “propositional knowledge” break down. While certainly there are different periods in Mormon thought with differing “dominant” theologies I’m not sure they change because of an open theology. Rather I think they change because the political situation we find ourselves in changes. (Meaning politic broadly)

    Certainly there are places where our theology changes abruptly. Say blacks and the priesthood. But arguably most of the theological development of that theology was apologetic in nature. That is trying to figure out how this could be so and in so doing we developed a systematic theology. Then circumstances change and we change.

    While many of our other Christian brothers and sisters don’t have that continuing revelation open to them, that hasn’t stopped them from doing some pretty serious rethinking of theology as times change. Protestantism threw out a lot of Catholic dogma. It tended to keep the important creeds because to them it made Biblical sense. Modern more liberal theology is arguably even more creative than Mormon theology. And there are plenty of millenialist like groups who developed Mormon theology much like we did – even if most didn’t develop in popularity to the degree we have.

    The point I’m making is simply that I think more is going on. Theology is always open for everyone because of historic change and for everyone has a kind of conservative inertia precisely because of a deep skepticism that our view of religion ought change simply because of the passage of time. Both those tensions are in our own faith as well as others.

    Comment by clark — December 8, 2007 @ 11:28 pm

  10. Blake,
    Well put. I’ve often wondered this myself. Its refreshing to have someone dissect such sweeping comments as “Mormonism has no theology.” I think you’ve done an excellent job at considering the possibilities of what one might mean by such a statement. I think it would be interesting to have Brother Faulconer come on to the New Cool Thang and enlighten us to exactly what he means when he says it. I sent him a message through Facebook giving him the link to this page. Hopefully he’ll respond.
    Someday your going to have to explain to me how you managed to have these philosophical thoughts floating around in your head and still managed to do so well in Law School. Finals are crushing me. :)

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — December 9, 2007 @ 7:47 am

  11. I think some of the a-theological claims are rooted in notions of Mormon exceptionalism. I’m not refering to anyone in particular (Bushman et al. probably have something more sophisticated in mind), but claims that Mormonism doesn’t have a “systematic” theology often reduce to “Mormons don’t have a Schleiermacher or Aquainas”; which I believe goes without saying. Creating such a tight definition excludes not only Mormons, but most of the major religious traditions of the world (not to mention certain other groups of Christianity). “Systematic” in the less technical sense, however, seems to be something that LDSs do expect from their “theology” (as you seem to infer in the initial post, and which we could perhaps clarify because I think most LDSs demand a certain kind of systematicity. I also think you straw man the TC, as they do–I would imagine–have sophisticated answers as to how the trinty works; and if not we likewise have claims that make little sense at the outset–the (in)finitude of God, etc.).

    Point being, any definition of “theology” should also argue a reason for the definition. One problem with comparative endeavors is that they all to often become inaccurate polarizations of the two things compared–TC have a systematic theology, we dont. TC have a closed theology, we don’t. TC are creedal, we are not, etc. IMO we sometimes “other”-ize traditional Christianity in the need to create this convenient “other” which we are not.

    Comment by SmallAxe — December 9, 2007 @ 8:13 am

  12. I think that’s quite right SmallAxe.

    Comment by Clark — December 9, 2007 @ 11:24 am

  13. I am often guilty of that myself SmallAxe. I like your new word (“other”-ize), I think I’ll use it.

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — December 9, 2007 @ 11:41 am

  14. Just a note: “Other-izing” is basically required for proselytizing. Why would anyone want to join a church that they think they basically already belong to? It is the age-old tension between inclusivism and exclusivism; between universalism and the “chosen-people-ism”.

    Frankly, “other-izing” sounds like a pejorative term for a key element in marketing. Doesn’t every product and service try to other-ize itself from the competition in order to attract users? (BTW – See my post a long time ago on “God as Marketer”)

    Comment by Geoff J — December 9, 2007 @ 12:19 pm

  15. SmallAxe: With respect to the trinity issue here, it is of course a caricature — but only to an extent. Those who adopt a more or less modalistic view (and that is the majority in the West and certainly lay belivers) the caricature is not at all far off. Since I have four chapters in my next book that deal with the Trinity I didn’t think it would serve to get more precise here — and I like what Orson Scott Card has done with the issue.

    Because theology is the attempt to make sense of the received faith in terms of the culture and world that one lives, as I parse it, all theologies must be open. Not all are — or aren’t as open as it serves. However, there is also constancy. Jesus was divine before mortality, became mortal, died and resurrected. These claims are basic and aren’t likely to change. What they mean, however, has been widely disputed and they are certainly open to discussion in Mormon theology.

    I also agree that any attempt at theology is an attempt at consistency and to make sense of the world in a way that somehow systematizes with beliefs that are more basic and organizational around which other beliefs will be adjusted. For example, in my theology the view that the relationship of loving unity shared by the Father, Son and Holy Ghost as the goal of human existence is an organizing principle. Another is the view that free choice is fundamental and that our purpose is to choose — indeed, it is inevitable that we will make of ourselves what we are by our choices. Given such organizing principles, loving relationships and freedom become central and determine what else can or must be said. God is personal, is not impassible, has capacity to aid us to grow and to give and receive love as God does and so forth. Further, because freedom is so foundational, God’s knowledge must be seen in light of God’s project for free humans to choose to enter a loving relationship. Theology is like that — it seeks to see the world in light of basic faith commitments.

    However, theology can and should do more. It serves best when it inspires us to grasp the divine nature more fully, and to be and live it as well.

    As to the Other-ness of theologies that aren’t Mormon, the notion of apostasy is a warning about the dangers of theology. There are ways of doing theology that are more dangerous than others. I think that folks like Jim and Richard are concerned about the dangers of theology and what it has done to alienate us from hearing God’s voice in the past. Thus, they avoid the dangers like the plague and send out warning voices.

    I am more interested in the inspirational and up-building possibilities of theology. My appreciation for the genius of the Restoration and Joseph Smith, for the integrity of the gospel message, for the beauty of the challenges and life that God has given to us are all “profoundized” and runner deeper in my soul because of the study and meditating and thinking and caring that I do and I certainly have been inspired by others like B. H. Robers, Orson Pratt, David Paulsen and a number of traditional Christian writers.

    I would also argue that one of the tasks of theology is precisely to recognize otherness. We are not Catholics — we in fact differ. We are not evangelicals — we in fact differ on very important issues. There are parts of their theologies that I don’t think work at all that have been healed or dissolved in Mormon theology — at least they can be. One of the tasks of theology is apologia. Recognizing the differences and celebrating them. That always leaves room for holy envy and appreciation of otherness. I love Thomas Aquinas and Augustine and Luther and even Calvin. I have learned immensely from studying them carefully.

    Comment by Blake — December 9, 2007 @ 12:38 pm

  16. Craig: Only those who have sat through finals in law school, with 5 to 6 classes that each have a final that is 4-8 hours long can truly appreciate what you are going through. I’m sure that you’ll do great.

    Comment by Blake — December 9, 2007 @ 1:04 pm

  17. Geoff:

    Just a note: “Other-izing” is basically required for proselytizing. Why would anyone want to join a church that they think they basically already belong to? It is the age-old tension between inclusivism and exclusivism; between universalism and the “chosen-people-ism”.

    I’m not sure that’s right. I and my wife disagree on some things. (Like alternative medicine which I personally consider quackery) However I don’t consider her “Other” in any strong sense. (Obviously in one sense everyone else is Other)

    The trick to missionary work is to tell investigators that they are part of us (the whole plan of salvation) and that they’d be better of accepting the rest.

    Comment by clark — December 9, 2007 @ 1:19 pm

  18. Blake:

    Craig: Only those who have sat through finals in law school, with 5 to 6 classes that each have a final that is 4-8 hours long can truly appreciate what you are going through. I’m sure that you’ll do great.

    You ought try physics and math. I once had a 25 hour take home exam. And I remember once going to the testing center at BYU around 9 and leaving when it closed for a single final!

    Comment by clark — December 9, 2007 @ 1:21 pm

  19. Clark,

    Yes, obviously in one sense everyone else is Other.

    My point was that in any sales-like situation (including missionary efforts by any church) there must be some acknowledgment of real differences between A and B. If A = B in every way then there would be no reason to prefer one over the other. This obvious fact is just as true for religions as it is for products and services.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 9, 2007 @ 3:09 pm

  20. I guess it really just boils down to whether you like theological finality or theological possibility as to whether you prefer the TC or the LDS position.

    Comment by Seth R. — December 9, 2007 @ 5:22 pm

  21. Clark,
    I specifically went into law to avoid physics and math. :) I only enjoy metaphysics.

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — December 9, 2007 @ 6:15 pm

  22. Blake,
    Is it possible to produce a systematic Mormon theology and that is able to accommodate continuing revelation? Or does a systematic theology logically preclude continuing revelation?

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — December 9, 2007 @ 6:20 pm

  23. Craig: My view is that one can develop a systematic theology in the limited sense of giving priority to central revelations of the Restoration as an organizing principle and a way to give precedence to possible views. One can systematize, but the system is not complete and is subject to revision. In a sense, science is a system. It seeks for coherence and it seeks completion, but it is never complete. In an analogous sense, we can focus on the central themes and truths revealed to us with openness to be tentative about a particular way we parse the issues.

    Let me give an example. As I see it, properties of mind are emergent from material complexity in a process meatphysic. But one could well be faithful to the spirit of Latter-day Saint theology while adopting materialism or some other view of the mind-body issue — or complete agnosticism regarding such issues. However, I don’t believe that one can coherently develop a reductionist, naturalistic determinism within an LDS view. Nor do I believe that one can adopt theological determinism within an LDS view. Other tenants of the gospel that are more central are inconsistent with such views — such as the view that we, not God, choose whether we accept the salvation so graciously offered to us. We are accountable for what we do; not some microphysical system and not our past. So our theology will seek consistency with the most central commitments, admit diversity where there are less established truths, and remain open to new revelations in the way that science remains open to new evidence.

    Comment by Blake — December 9, 2007 @ 6:59 pm

  24. Geoff,

    Frankly, “other-izing” sounds like a pejorative term for a key element in marketing. Doesn’t every product and service try to other-ize itself from the competition in order to attract users?

    I think there’s a difference between accurately describing difference and positioning oneself in the marketplace (whatever “marketplace” that might be). I also think this is one point where marketing metaphors breakdown. In the market you have no responsibility (let alone a moral imperative) to know your “competition” unless it acts as a means to generate more profit for you or if it will cut into your market share (i.e., knowing that Coke is going diet, so I as Pepsi should too); and you certainly don’t have a responsibility to accurately depict them (at least only as much as mandated by law).

    I believe as people of religion we have a moral responsibility to accurately assess the real differences of other faiths. I think one major drawback of much comparative work is that when choosing two things to compare, the result is to polarize the two, and “raise the bar” as far as technical vocabularies are concerned such that when asserted back into the larger context, the created vocabularies only work within the comparison. I also think that an underlying reason these things are done is, in the words of Said, to create “a style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over” the other. This is certainly not to say that Blake is doing such, but I am only trying to point out some of the contours of discourse as I see them.

    Comment by SmallAxe — December 9, 2007 @ 7:13 pm

  25. SmallAxe: In the market you have no responsibility (let alone a moral imperative) to know your “competition” unless it acts as a means to generate more profit for you or if it will cut into your market share (i.e., knowing that Coke is going diet, so I as Pepsi should too); and you certainly don’t have a responsibility to accurately depict them (at least only as much as mandated by law).

    It seems that you believe morals and marketplaces don’t mix or something… is that really what you believe? If so, I don’t think that is the case at all. For instance, if one is a Christian one cannot just ignore things like the Golden Rule the minute work starts. What sort of ethical system do you have in mind where knowingly making false claims about competition would be considered perfectly ethical and moral?

    In the broad sense of the concept, there is and always has been a religious “marketplace” in the world. Every prophet in scripture competed in that marketplace. The scriptures generally depict those prophets extolling the virtues of their God (and religion overall) while pointing out the flaws, weaknesses and absurdities of the competition. (Think Elijah vs the priests of Baal or even Abinidi in King Noah’s court.) So I don’t consider the marketing issue to be a “metaphor”at all. Religions and prophets do real (read: non-metaphorical) marketing and always have.

    I want to emphasize though that I do very much agree with you that “as people of religion we have a moral responsibility to accurately assess the real differences of other faiths”. I simply was pointing out that emphasizing the “otherness” of other religions is as old as religion itself and is certainly not a bad thing in and of itself.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 9, 2007 @ 7:38 pm

  26. Blake,

    What do you mean by saying, “There are ways of doing theology that are more dangerous than others”?

    Also, do you see any tension between systematicity (defined in terms of intellectual coherence, which it seems that you believe that theology must have) and the generating of “meaning” (which it also seems like you claim theology must have)? In other words, I wonder if “faith seeking understanding” isn’t a bias toward a pursuit of coherent ideas, rather than an examination of the value of certain performances and/or the acceptance of a certain degree of normative incoherency in the world.

    Comment by SmallAxe — December 9, 2007 @ 8:06 pm

  27. Geoff,

    It seems that you believe morals and marketplaces don’t mix or something… is that really what you believe?

    I’d be willing to bet that the hermeneutic of “the marketplace of religions” is a post-free market economy development. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t provide some legs to analyze the situation, but only that it is historically situated and is therefore capable of highlighting certain things and obscuring others. When I mention “marketplace” above I’m refering to the market of Wall Street and not Temple Square. In the market of products (and not religion), we have no moral responsibility to know the other. Why should Pepsi know about Coke, for instance, other than the strategic reasons mentioned above?

    Comment by SmallAxe — December 9, 2007 @ 8:14 pm

  28. SmallAxe: When I mention “marketplace” above I’m refering to the market of Wall Street and not Temple Square.

    You seem to be making the same incorrect assumption that many people make about marketing. That is, you seem to assume the principles of marketing only apply to commerce. That is simply not the case. The very same principles used to persuade a person to buy a product or service are used to persuade a person to believe a philosophy or theology and those principles predate the word “marketing” or even English for that matter. Some of those principles and methods are even discussed in our scripture: persuasion, long-suffering, kindness, and pure knowledge are among them (see D&C 121). Trickery or falsehoods never should to be employed in proper marketing if things are done correctly in my opinion. (See my post where I argued with others over this very subject here).

    Comment by Geoff J — December 9, 2007 @ 11:59 pm

  29. Blake, my sense is that when normal Mormons make comments about not having a theology in the Church, they are taking theology to mean something like “theor(ies) about the nature of God” and the comment is meant to convey the idea that Mormons’ don’t ascribe their knowledge about the nature of God to the conclusions of a school or paradigm of philosophy but rather to continual revelation, and particularly to the First Vision, in which, normal Mormons believe, Joseph Smith learned what we know about the nature of God because he saw them in person and not by virtue of philosophical abstractions and conclusions.

    As for what Faulconer and Bushman mean by it, I have no idea because I assume they (particularly Faulconer) mean something more sophisticated than that. I would not describe these two as being “normal Mormons” in the sense of your regular non-Ph.D. holding, non-professor Mormons who fill our churches across the world every Sunday.

    Comment by john f. — December 10, 2007 @ 5:00 am

  30. Smallaxe # 26: I wonder if “faith seeking understanding” isn’t a bias toward a pursuit of coherent ideas, rather than an examination of the value of certain performances and/or the acceptance of a certain degree of normative incoherency in the world.

    I don’t see why examining the value of certain performances is mutually exclusive with seeking a consistent world view. I have done both. I don’t know what you mean by “normative incoherency” unless it is something like we just have to accept a certain amount of cognitive dissonance because we don’t have all of the pieces of the puzzle yet. Let me give an example. We know that quantum equations are inconsistent with GTR. Yet physicists use both. Yet we know that there is progress to be made somewhere because we have identified the inconsistency. That is important to know. Further, given the commitments of GTR, in our world it is important to hold views about material reality that at least take into account the implications of GTR. If we say that God has a body, given GTR, we place very important limitations on what it is possible for God to do as an embodied God. Thus, we generate speculation about the possibilities of reconciling what appear to be inconsistent claims. We may not have all of the pieces of the puzzle, but we can imagine what they might look like and look for them.

    John f. You may be right about the lay Mormon notion that somehow our view of God is unaffected by human categories of thought and all other theologies are merely expressions of human categories of thought (you can tell how Kantian I frame the questions). If that is the notion, it is not responsible or charitable. It is easy to see that all of our assertions about God, including those derived from the Wentworth letter, involve categories of human thought. As you well know, the mere use of language entails assuming such categories even when we try to transcend them. But we cannot escape our own skin. I believe that the real divide that they seek is a difference between knowledge derived from revelation and from mere empirical investigation or logical reasoning. A part of theology’s task is to investigate how the use of language and the assumptions of the categories we use to divide up the world are assumed in the language of revelation and the assumptions brought to the text in that complicated hermeneutic circle. A part of the task is to point out that revelation involves human conceptualization as well as divine deliverance.

    As for knowing about the nature of God by seeing God — one does not see a nature. Seeing God entails nothing about God’s nature because it may be that God assumes a form for purposes of presentation to human minds. Moreover, even if we see that God has a body, we also see that God’s body isn’t quite like the other bodies we experience. The contemplation of the ways that God’s body is different and what that may mean for our theology is the task of theology — and I don’t believe that Faulconer believes such investigations are off limits — but asking what the revelations mean in terms of our experience necessarily goes beyond the deliverance of the revelation. A part of the task of theology is to negotiate the world once one passes beyond a first level naivte to a second level naivte (in Ricoeur’s terms). That is what I see Faulconer doing — and he is doing theology in the classic sense as such.

    Comment by Blake — December 10, 2007 @ 7:19 am

  31. Geoff,

    You seem to be making the same incorrect assumption that many people make about marketing. That is, you seem to assume the principles of marketing only apply to commerce.

    This isn’t an issue of the applicability of marketing principles, but about the prerequisites for successfully participating in “marketplaces”. My claim is that participating in the “marketplace of religion” carries with it a moral responsibility which is not required in order to achieve success in the “marketplace of things”. With the former, my religious life is enriched by my accurate knowledge of a denomination such as the Quakers–there is value in the means (as well as the ends, if you count success by people joining my faith). If I accomplish the ends without fulfilling the means, I am not “successful” even though I have gained a larger market share in terms of converts, because I have not accurately learned about my “competition” and have thereby missed out on an opportunity for self-growth. With the latter, the ends are valued more highly than the means. I learn about my competition only in as much as it will impact my market share. I have no moral imperative to know them accurately, or describe them accurately (within the bounds of the law). Hence I repeat the same question, Why should Pepsi know about Coke other than the strategic reasons mentioned above?

    Comment by SmallAxe — December 10, 2007 @ 7:57 am

  32. SmallAxe: My claim is that participating in the “marketplace of religion” carries with it a moral responsibility which is not required in order to achieve success in the “marketplace of things”.

    I don’t think you are adequately supporting this claim of yours. You make an apples to oranges comparison when you compare yourself, a lay Mormon, in the religious example with the entire Pepsi Corporation in the commerce example. You would need to compare the entire LDS church with Pepsi Corp. or a single Pepsi employee and Pepsi drinker to a single participating Mormon to get a more useful comparison.

    The comparison also goes awry in the fact that you don’t ever attract converts (market share) yourself as a Mormon. You might act as an agent (missionary) for the church but you are the equivalent of a salesperson for the organization at that point. So if any salesperson makes a sale on behalf of an organization the same personal enrichment issues that are associated with accurately understanding the “other” you mention apply (even though the stakes are much lower in the commerce arena).

    I have no moral imperative to know them accurately, or describe them accurately (within the bounds of the law).

    Preachers are also not legally bound to accurately describe other religions. If they were there would be all sorts of religious people in jail right now. But all people (and organizations) have an ethical responsibility to do their best to accurately talk about the “other”. This moral and ethical responsibility is universal in my opinion. (The Golden Rule)

    So in short, I think this great difference you are claiming exists between ethically marketing religions and ethically marketing other products and services does not really exist at all.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 10, 2007 @ 10:08 am

  33. Excellent post Blake, and great comments all.

    I just want to add that I think Mormonism not only has a theology, but that it is an incredibly strong theology – and vastly underrated.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — December 10, 2007 @ 10:11 am

  34. Blake,

    I don’t see why examining the value of certain performances is mutually exclusive with seeking a consistent world view.

    I’m not claiming that they are mutually exclusive. I’m asking whether there is a tension between an assumption of coherency and the generation of meaning. I’ll try to explain below.

    I don’t know what you mean by “normative incoherency” unless it is something like we just have to accept a certain amount of cognitive dissonance because we don’t have all of the pieces of the puzzle yet.

    By normative incoherency I mean a belief that reality itself is partially incoherent. This isn’t a cognitive dissonance we temporarily accept because we lack some piece of the puzzle; but an acceptance that ultimately speaking there is (some) incoherence.

    The reason I raise this issue is because if theology is reflective of a received faith that is about the generating meaning; and generating meaning is not necessarily predicated on logical coherency (i.e., some performative aspects of faith), then it doesn’t seem that a proper theology can be done which presupposes logical coherency. It would necessarily have to take into account the (possible) tension between coherency and the generation of meaning.

    Comment by SmallAxe — December 10, 2007 @ 9:18 pm

  35. Geoff,

    I don’t see why you are so wed to this particular hermeneutic. Every analogy has things that it highlights and others that it disguises.

    You make an apples to oranges comparison when you compare yourself, a lay Mormon, in the religious example with the entire Pepsi Corporation in the commerce example.

    Alright, let me make this more clear. Why should our institution accurately learn about and depict the “other”? Because 1) It allows us to know our competition (more on this below). 2) We become a morally refined institution because we are transformed by the things we learn in this interaction. Why should Pepsi learn about Coke? I don’t see how number 2 holds.

    The largest reason this hermeneutic is lacking is because of the assumption that religions are after “market share”. This may be true from a certain aspect of proselytizing religions; but this is neither the entirety of these religions (even our evangelizing success is not determined soley by numbers); nor is the representative of all religions.

    Comment by SmallAxe — December 10, 2007 @ 9:35 pm

  36. SmallAxe: 2) We become a morally refined institution because we are transformed by the things we learn in this interaction. Why should Pepsi learn about Coke? I don’t see how number 2 holds.

    Why not? Do you think the people at Pepsi are opposed to becoming a more morally refined institution?

    The largest reason this hermeneutic is lacking is because of the assumption that religions are after “market share”.

    You don’t think God wants a larger market share? (Market share in this case is just another term for real people who are converted to the gospel of Christ after all.) The scriptures indicate to me that he does.

    I don’t disagree if your only claim is that some religions somewhere are not interested in adding more adherents though.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 10, 2007 @ 9:45 pm

  37. SmallAxe: and generating meaning is not necessarily predicated on logical coherency (i.e., some performative aspects of faith), then it doesn’t seem that a proper theology can be done which presupposes logical coherency.

    I guess I’m missing something. It doesn’t follow that if meaning isn’t fully dependent on coherence (and it decidedly is not) that a theology cannot be done which presupposes logical coherence. I suppose that the truth is coherent; but I don’t think that all meaning is found merely in coherence. Meaning is often found in the fissures that challenge us to make meaning out of the dissonance. We are meaning creating machines!

    Comment by Blake — December 10, 2007 @ 10:11 pm

  38. Do you think the people at Pepsi are opposed to becoming a more morally refined institution?

    Certainly not, but 1) I don’t see why they would look to Coke (i.e., their “competition”) for that refinement. 2) There is no “ought” to moral refinement as a defining characteristic of being in business.

    You don’t think God wants a larger market share?

    Maybe we’re conflating two kinds of discourse. My descriptive point is that the metaphor of the “marketplace of religion” is limited. It’s limited in the sense that the assumption is that religions are after “market share”, which is not true of all religion. It seems like you agree at this level.

    Now, normatively speaking, I do believe that God wants a “larger market share”. I do not believe however that other religions are our “competitors” for that market share; and they certainly should not be treated as such.

    Comment by SmallAxe — December 11, 2007 @ 7:22 am

  39. It doesn’t follow that if meaning isn’t fully dependent on coherence (and it decidedly is not) that a theology cannot be done which presupposes logical coherence. I suppose that the truth is coherent…

    If I’m understanding your correctly, theology is about truth, and you assume that truth is coherent (or perhaps by definition it is). So theology is based on the presupposition of logical coherence. But you also accept that theology is about the generation of meaning, and meaning is not necessarily based on logical coherence. If this is the case, I don’t see why there wouldn’t be a tension bewtween theology which presupposes logical coherence but at the same time tries to incorporate meaning-generation which may presuppose logical incoherence.

    Comment by SmallAxe — December 11, 2007 @ 7:40 am

  40. SmallAxe: Now, normatively speaking, I do believe that God wants a “larger market share”. I do not believe however that other religions are our “competitors” for that market share; and they certainly should not be treated as such.

    It seems to me to follow from what you say that God is apathetic about which religion we choose, or whether we choose one. It’s all the same to God. He wants greater market share, but there isn’t competition. Then what defines this market if not market competition?

    Comment by Blake — December 11, 2007 @ 7:42 am

  41. Blake,

    It seems to me to follow from what you say that God is apathetic about which religion we choose, or whether we choose one. It’s all the same to God.

    Not at all. This entire issue is contextualized in within the discussion of the “other” and Geoff’s assertion that a market hermeneutic is appropriate in this situation.

    I think we would agree that:

    1) There are many different ways of conceptualizing the “other”.

    2) Some ways of conceptualizing the other are better than others (perhaps depending on the circumstances).

    And

    3)The term of “market competition” is one way of conceptualizing the other (we’ve been talking about it in terms of Coke vs. Pepsi).

    Geoff’s claim is that Coke vs. Pepsi is similar to “competition in the marketplace of religion” (perhaps something like Mormonism vs. Calvinism); and my critique is that this is an impoverished hermeneutic to apply in this situation.

    To apply the language of the “marketplace” to this situation is to import the baggage of “competition” (i.e., Coke vs. Pepsi), where the “other” should be conceived of in a way rather different than “competition”.

    I’m not denying the existence of “competing” truth claims (there are real differences between Calvin and JS). But I am making a claim about the level of awareness we should have when employing any hermeneutic (Again, the marketplace hermeneutic does provide an effective lens to look at religions in some regards, but we should be aware of its shortcomings and apply it with those in mind).

    In that sense I do believe that God wants a “larger market share” (to use Geoff’s terms) as far as the conversion of souls is concerned; but I do not think “other” religions should be viewed as “competitors” (in the light of Coke vs. Pepsi), because such a view masks other important factors of the situation.

    Comment by SmallAxe — December 11, 2007 @ 10:00 am

  42. Smallaxe (#38): 1) I don’t see why they would look to Coke (i.e., their “competition”) for that refinement.

    Of course companies benchmark themselves off of their competition. When one comes out with a diet drink and it works the others do to. That is organizational refinement to be sure.

    2) There is no “ought” to moral refinement as a defining characteristic of being in business.

    Well first, you seem to assume that organizations are moral or not moral. I can buy that I suppose. But if we do buy that then I simply disagree when you say there is no reason organizations ought be be moral. What do you base that assertion on? I assume you think people ought to be moral and organizations like companies are made up of people so I don’t know how one can be consistently moral while belonging to and supporting immoral organizations.

    I do not believe however that other religions are our “competitors” for that market share

    Who is the “our” you are referring to here? You are playing that apples and oranges game again I think. You speak of Coke and Pepsi as if they are single-minded entities and then you refer to the LDS church as if it is “us”, as in all of us as individuals, instead of the church as a single-minded entity too. If we consider the church along the same lines as you are treating those companies then I think you are fooling yourself if you want to say that The Church is not interested in seeing as many people as possible become converted and join the organization in full participating fellowship. Preaching the gospel is in fact one of the stated missions of the church. Now one of the requirements to become a member of the church is to no longer be a practicing member of another religion. So in a very real sense there is some organizational competition going on and there always has been. To deny this is just silly I think.

    Now I agree if your point is that we as individual members should not see individual members of other church as our competition or even worse, our enemies in the world. They are not. Rather they are our spiritual brothers and sisters. I just object your conflating members of organizations with organizations themselves in this conversation.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 13, 2007 @ 11:06 pm

  43. Geoff,

    That is organizational refinement to be sure.

    Organizational refinement is not necessarily moral refinement. A prerequisite of a religion as an institution/organization (so you know that I’m not conflating anything here) is moral refinement. This is not a prerequisite for a company/business institution/organization.

    I just object your conflating members of organizations with organizations themselves in this conversation.

    To clarify: I do not believe however that other religions are our institution/organization’s “competitors” for that market share.

    There, (potential) conflation corrected.

    The root question at play is whether or not other religions should be seen as “competition” in the marketing sense; and from what perspective (i.e., the members of the organization or the organization itself).

    You’ve already consented that at the level of the “individual member”, other religions should not be viewed as “competition”. So let’s talk about the organization.

    Let me first be clear, however, that I never denied competition between religions (did you read post #41?). My entire point was to challenge the applicability of the hermeneutic of the marketplace of religions, and to point out that while it highlights certain things, it masks and even distorts others. As I said in #41: To apply the language of the “marketplace” to this situation is to import the baggage of “competition” (i.e., Coke vs. Pepsi), where the “other” should be conceived of in a way rather different than “competition”.

    In other words, what I am arguing is that the language of “competition” from the hermeneutic of the “market” is inadequate at BOTH the individual level of the member and at the institutional level of the organization. The reason it is inadequate at the institutional level is that “competition” for a company carries with it the presupposition of gaining “market share” as the primary motivation for interation between institutions. This can be a non-moral activity based on strategy and even deception, where the ends are valued above the means. I do not believe this holds true however, for religions.

    I’ve stated this all before, and rather than responding to these points directly, you make the argument into one about the relationship between the individual and the organization.

    Comment by SmallAxe — December 14, 2007 @ 6:38 pm

  44. SmallAxe: A prerequisite of a religion as an institution/organization (so you know that I’m not conflating anything here) is moral refinement.

    Have you demonstrated that organizations/institutions (not people) can be morally refined? Even if we buy that questionable assumption, and we buy the assumption that religious organizations must become more morally refined, you have not demonstrated that the same is not true for other organizations at all. You have simply asserted it is so.

    I do not believe however that other religions are our institution/organization’s “competitors” for that market share.

    This claim is demonstrably false. It is pretty simple logic really. There are a finite number of people on the planet. If organization A is working toward 100% of people choosing to belong to it and organization B is working toward to same goal, and if one cannot belong to both organizations at the same time then organizations A and B are in fact direct competitors for that market share.

    You’ve already consented that at the level of the “individual member”, other religions should not be viewed as “competition”.

    No, actually I said that an individual member of one religion should not view individual members of other religions as competition. You are again making an apples and oranges comparison — the very thing I have been objecting to all along here.

    I do agree with you however that people get confused and conflate religions (the organizations themselves) and actual individual people too easily. Because of that confusion I can agree that using marketplace analogies can give people the wrong impression — not because the marketing principles don’t accurately and aptly apply at an organizational level, but because too many people are unable to separate the organization from the individual in their minds.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 15, 2007 @ 10:55 am

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