“For the laying down of contentions” —Rosemary Demos on the 2016 Mormon Theology Seminar
I’ve thought a lot about the wrangling that so often happens over sacred text. There’s plenty of it within the scriptures themselves: Abinadi versus the priests of Noah, Stephen versus the Sanhedrin, Jacob versus Sherem, Jesus being challenged on the basis of scriptural interpretation by the scribes and Pharisees. Most of these stories end with the violent death of one of the characters. They remind us that scripture can be divisive, that interpretation of sacred texts can be a dangerous task.
But the Book of Mormon predicted that the power of its own text would be in the “laying down of contentions, and establishing peace” (2 Nephi 3:12). Is it actually possible to foster a questioning and scholarly study of scripture without also fostering contention? Can a Mormon theology based on close reading of scripture stand behind its peacemaking promises? The Mormon Theology Seminar is a kind of experiment in this.
For this year’s seminar, we spent two weeks reading and questioning Alma 12:19 through Alma 13:20, only about a chapter’s length. It’s an especially dense selection, full of layered scriptural allusions and irregular grammatical constructions. It highlights some sticky topics like priesthood authority. Even with its numerous references to biblical texts, the passage is particularly Mormon, with the seeds of a theology of premortality, a meditation on agency that delves into the delicate interplay of grace and holy works, and a reworking of the Melchizedek narrative that differs substantially from its biblical counterparts.
As for the storyline, Alma 12-13 is fraught with scriptural wrangling. Alma’s sermon is a response to an interrogation in scriptural hermeneutics by a group called the Nehorites of Ammonihah. Alma in turn accuses his questioners of distorting or “wresting” the scriptures. And in the very next chapter, these same sacred texts are put to flame in the Book of Mormon’s only book-burning incident. Although Alma does end up with a few precious friendships forged out of his encounters in Ammonihah, this debate over scripture is a far cry from the laying down of contention and establishing of peace hoped for by Lehi hundreds of years earlier.
But we don’t have to be stuck in a rut of scriptural contention. After participating in the Mormon Theology Seminar, I feel that I’ve experienced a model of its opposite. We were a small core of collaborators (with some input from guests) consisting of two philosophers, two religious historians, a theologian, a rhetorician, a literary theorist, and a sociologist. We traveled from eight different states, were both Mormon and non-Mormon, men and women, and had diverse histories of LDS church involvement. Our insights were varied. Some could speak to the passage’s affinities with St. Augustine and John Calvin. Others saw poetic possibilities or the drama of the passage’s storytelling. Some were looking through a lens of continental philosophy.
And it worked. Our discussions were exercises in listening and asking questions.
And I loved it. I loved the dialogue that happened. I loved digging for questions with as much energy as we searched for the answers. I loved thinking deeply about a particular verse or even a specific word. I loved that we could focus on a text that yielded such abundant fruit, even though (or perhaps because?) the passage was sometimes thorny and puzzling and our perspectives sometimes contrasted with each other.
I learned two things about studying scripture.
First, that the Book of Mormon is worthy of scholarship—historical, sociological, literary, and theological. Its text is rich. It opens up into an abundant feast.
Second, that collaboration works. When people truly listen to one another—trusting a speaker’s sincerity, respecting unique perspectives, saying “tell me more” instead of “that’s wrong”— the result is amazing. There is nothing more fruitful, more intellectually invigorating and spiritually inspiring than laying down contention and establishing peace with scripture.
Before I started this seminar, a friend wished me well with a prediction that my two weeks would be spiritually fulfilling. I wasn’t sure how that would play out. Our seminar discussions were a far cry from tearful or tender testimony meetings. There was a lot of fast talking with ready citations of what some might call abstruse writers. People were jovial rather than sweet. But there was a brightness of enlightenment. Hunger for a feast that could fulfill. Curiosity piqued by the intellect of collaborators. If we call the scriptures a feast, then this was two weeks of indulging in the very best food, leaving me with an appetite for more feasting to come.
The 2016 Mormon Theology Seminar recently wrapped up at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. We asked participants to offer a glimpse at what the Seminar’s all about. This post features Rosemary Demos. She completed a PhD in Comparative Literature at the City University of New York Graduate Center this May. Her research and writing focuses on religion in literature. She currently lives in Greenbelt, Maryland. Read more experiences from the Mormon Theology Seminar here.