As a long-time “inside-outsider” to Mormon culture and studies, I’m always deeply impressed when I meet Mormons who actually believe in Mormonism. By that I do not mean Mormons who profess belief in Mormonism, because obviously plenty of people do that. In C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, the protagonist describes a priest of the goddess Ungit who is threatened with a knife to his chest. The priest demonstrates perfect stillness and shows no fear because Ungit is as real to him as the knife touching his chest.
That’s how it is for people who really believe in their own theology. They aren’t threatened by new ideas, by theological exploration, or by dialogue with outsiders, because their faith is something real to them. Believers approach theology from a place of openness and charity, welcoming anyone to the table who is genuinely interested and may have something to add. People who only think they believe get defensive easily, close down dialogue, and chase others away from the table (with a stick if needed).
I am grateful that, with the 2016 Mormon Theology Seminar, Adam Miller and Joseph Spencer assembled so many believers (if sometimes unconventional ones). Our conversations were warm and engaging. The breadth of ideas emanating from such a small selection of Book of Mormon text truly surprised me and left me with a lot to think about. Everyone’s theological essays were treated with charity and equity, even when we disagreed with one another, with the result that new ideas had a nurturing environment in which to be born.
As a student at Brigham Young University (2001-2005), I was struck by how generalized most of the religion classes were. What I mean is, at an evangelical Christian college you can take an entire class on a single book of the Bible, getting in some truly intense study and becoming deeply acquainted with that one book—its authorship, its themes, the setting of its composition, and special details about the original Greek or Hebrew—all in the course of your undergraduate education. Evangelical Sunday school classes frequently spend three to four months on just one book of the Bible. Yet with the religion classes at BYU, half of the Book of Mormon or the D&C always seemed to be crammed into a single two-credit class. Classes at the ward level were similar. I never saw offerings for a study of just Alma—just 2 Nephi, just D&C 121, and so forth.
I realized after exiting BYU the comparison was hardly fair. Mormonism had only been around for 17 or 18 decades while the rest of Christianity had been around for almost two millennia. We’d had far more time to develop theology and generate material on which to base specialized coursework. It is in this light that the work of the Mormon Theology Seminar is so important. It may be that someday a class on Alma will draw from our essays when it is studying chapters 12-13. We are generating the specialized study of Mormon texts and the theology therein on which such efforts can be based, and so we add our voices to the growing body of Book of Mormon scholarship and theology and hope that our findings serve others one day.
I am grateful to have been included as a participant in this year’s seminar, and grateful to Joseph Spencer, Adam Miller, the Maxwell Institute, and the Willes Center for making it happen. I hope other non-Mormons—and especially other Christians—will consider adding their voices to the seminar in the future. The late Gordon B. Hinckley once said to us, “we say in a spirit of love, bring with you all that you have of good and truth which you have received from whatever source, and come and let us see if we may add to it.” This is the spirit of the Mormon Theology Seminar, and I hope it continues to be so for a long time to come.
The 2016 Mormon Theology Seminar recently wrapped up at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. We invited seminar participants to reflect on their experiences here on the Institute blog. This post features Bridget Jack Jeffries, an independent scholar from Chicago with a master’s degree in American religious history from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. See more from other participants here.