“Foraging, plumbing, dissecting, unfolding…” —Sharon Harris on the 2015 Mormon Theology Seminar
When I moved to New York City five years ago I quickly learned that in New York the introductory social question is, “What do you do in New York?” The question is not “Where do you work?” or “Are you a student?” New Yorkers do all kinds of things, often that defy neat identity categorization such as being a student or being a nurse. Moreover, New Yorkers put a lot of thought and grooming into their self-developed narratives. So you ask the question, What do you do in New York?
and give the person a chance to tell her story. This summer from June 7–20 eight of us gathered in New York, and we would have answered that question, “I do Mormon theology.”
It wasn’t that long ago that I first heard the formulation of “doing theology” and it struck me as simultaneously odd and ambitious, perhaps even a bit pretentious (Who are you to think that you can do theology anyway?). On one hand, “doing theology” is syntactically unremarkable as a way of identifying academic work: As an PhD candidate in English literature, I wouldn’t say that I “do English,” but I might say that I “do literary criticism.” I often say that I “do early modern,” meaning that within English literature I specialize in early modern historical field. (It’s only now as I type this out I realize how grammatically incorrect and somewhat silly that phrasing sounds.)
On the other hand, I sensed that for the seminar co-directors Adam Miller and Joe Spencer—and in short order for all of us—the word “theology” in the phrase “doing theology” was by no means a mere placeholder, a way of filling in the blank, a simple identification of an academic field. On the contrary, doing theology was much closer to the Latin facere
meaning both to do
and to make
. To say we were doing theology meant that we were busy, and we were! We wrote over 10,000 words a piece in two weeks, each of us churning out a new short paper each day in the first week and preparing our longer conference paper in the second week. To say we were doing theology meant that the whole enterprise of cracking open, holding up to the light, foraging, plumbing, dissecting, unfolding, questioning, rethinking, reordering, re-doing Jacob chapter 7 took on a palpable urgency: we’ve got stuff to do! There were verb tenses to parse, Old and New Testament echoes to puzzle over, family relations humming through Jacob’s words, and evidence of temple practices wedged into unexpected places. The text was too rich, dense, generous, and dynamic to waste any time.
For me that’s where the potential pretentiousness of doing theology melted away; there was too much sweat for pomposity and far too much joy for self-aggrandizement. The question is not, “Who are you to do theology?” but rather, “Who are we to leave the scriptures unread, the theology undone?”
The Mormon Theology Seminar of 2015 recently wrapped up in New York City (see here). We asked seminar participants to reflect on their experiences, offering a glimpse at what the Seminar’s all about. This post features Sharon Harris, a PhD candidate in English literature at Fordham University. See more here. —BHodges