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.