Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar: “an approach that…can contribute in significant ways”

09.08.2022 | The Maxwell Institute

This post is from Liz Brocious, a participant in the 2022 Latter-day Saint theology seminar.

Intellectual work requires a certain “mind space” in which one can be immersed in particular texts and ideas. The 2022 LDS Theology Seminar, by carrying us away to New York City and away from the distractions of our regular lives, offered such a space and gave us a rare opportunity to genuinely focus in on the work at hand. But it wasn’t just the fact of being in New York City as such that provided this immersive mind space. The actual day-to-day structures of the seminar were mostly responsible for nurturing it. First, we were all given our own room to work and write. Each morning, we were tasked with engaging creatively, on our own, with a few lines of text, encouraged to draw out connections and meanings that the text itself presented to us. Examining only a few verses on any given day had the effect of really slowing our reading down such that I personally was able to see new ideas, themes, and concepts that I had not seen before. It led me to examine my own assumptions that I brought with me to the text to see if they really stood up to the actual words of the text. I found myself frequently stopping at a word or phrase, closely examining the context that surrounded it, and asking myself, “What actual work is that word (or phrase) doing in the text? Is it really doing what I think it is?” The overall effect was that the text of Enos, one I had read many times in the past such that it was supposedly a familiar one, was defamiliarized to the point that it sometimes felt as if I was coming to it for the first time.

The best intellectual work isn’t ultimately done in isolation, however, but requires conversation partners so that the ideas which are arrived at in the privacy of our own study can be vetted by others who come to the text from a different perspective or who have experience with certain concepts or histories that we might not have. Ultimately, it was the interaction and conversation with the other participants of the seminar that contributed to my closer examination of the lines of Enos when I was alone each morning in my own room. I carried with me the comments and contributions of the other participants as I approached the text, and as such was often nudged to see where I personally had blind spots or misunderstandings. The project of building knowledge, such as it is in an academic context especially, is never the result of an autonomous mind doing its own thing. It is always the case that our own mind acts as a hub or confluence of various voices and borrowed knowledge-banks and data points. This seminar was an enactment of such a model of knowledge-building. As such, it was a good reminder for me to operate with a stance of epistemological humility.

One other aspect of the seminar that appealed to me is a natural outgrowth of an epistemologically humble stance: we were encouraged to work at the level of hypothesis or provisionality rather than seeing ourselves as presenting final and sufficient arguments. The premise of hypothesis allowed for an environment of innovative speculation and creative engagement that felt liberating. It was an opportunity to write daily essays that embody the actual meaning of essayer, to try. Of course, because we were also operating within the context of adhering closely to the actual words of the text, so that not just any reading could be proposed, our “hypotheses” were ultimately formulated with intellectual rigor. The provisional premise to the seminar was a much-appreciated non-dogmatic approach to theology, an approach that, I believe, can contribute in significant ways to genuine theological discoveries.

Aside from the intellectual work of the seminar, the times when we just hung out together or just walked about the city were great fun too! I very much enjoyed the personal interactions and friendships that the seminar made possible.