The Maxwell Institute is pleased to announce the publication of An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32. Adam S. Miller, who edited the volume, introduces our latest book in this guest post. You can read more about this new title here. —BHodges
Thinking about God has always seemed to me to be a fragile thing, not because God isn’t real but because he is. Here, words are weak tea.
As a theologian, I lack the self-confidence of the polemicist, the relics of the historian, the bulwarks of the apologist, and the justification of those invested with institutional authority. I arrive at work bare and unarmed. But these compounding weaknesses, rather than deterring my work, have urged it. They’ve just posed the question with greater insistence: how to do theology.
For my part, I think that theology should begin by owning its proper fragility or weakness: (1) it should foreground it, and (2) it should incorporate it as a raw material critical to its own composition. It should foreground its fragility by making its own hypothetical character explicit. And it should incorporate its fragility by performing its work as a kind of antiphony.
My thesis is that the structure of the work of theology is “call-and-response.”
Theology can’t proceed on its own. It can’t start from itself. It builds as a layering of voices. It begins by reading scripture with an unparalleled attention to structures and details and then it responds to their call with an antiphonal echo. But, more, it doesn’t read scripture alone. Its weakness prompts it to read collectively, collaboratively, and to test its own response against the responses of bodies with different voices and different ears. It bears with a whole heart the weakness imposed by these differences.
In this sense, theology should respond to scripture as a chorus. And the measure of its shared antiphon should be the care it demonstrates: the care it shows for the text that it reads, the care it shows for the choir of antiphonal voices it joins, and the care it shows for the grace that such songs invite.
The Maxwell Institute’s re-publication of the Mormon Theology Seminar’s first published collection of seminar papers, An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32, makes more broadly available our early attempt at performing theology as a fragile act of choral antiphony. It includes both a collaboratively written “summary report” of the seminar’s findings regarding key themes in Alma 32 and individual papers written by scholars Julie Smith, James Faulconer, Jenny Webb, Robert Couch, Joseph Spencer, and myself. The Institute plans to publish more volumes produced by the Mormon Theology Seminar, some never having been previously published.
Newly reissued, An Experiment feels vibrant. And its continuing resonance shows, I think, not only the value of what resulted from this particular seminar but of the methodology that frames the broader project.
—Adam S. Miller