An Englishman in New York: A Metaphor for the Latter-day Saint Theologian

09.02.2020 | The Maxwell Institute

Before commencing a DPhil in Theology at Pembroke College, Oxford, Timothy Farrant completed a BA in History at the University of Bristol, and an MA in Medieval History at the University of York. This post is part of a series of reflections from the 2019 Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar. What does it mean to engage with Latter-day Saint scripture theologically? See the rest here

I don’t take coffee, I take tea, my dear
I like my toast done on one side
And you can hear it in my accent when I talk
I’m an Englishman in New York

If “manners maketh man” as someone said
He’s the hero of the day
It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile
Be yourself no matter what they say

Modesty, propriety can lead to notoriety
You could end up as the only one
Gentleness, sobriety are rare in this society
At night a candle’s brighter than the sun

Takes more than combat gear to make a man
Takes more than a license for a gun
Confront your enemies, avoid them when you can
A gentleman will walk but never run

Oh, I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien

I’m an Englishman in New York

—Gordon Sumner (Sting)

The irony of choosing Sumner’s lyrics as an introduction to this blog post is that Latter-day Saints take neither coffee nor tea.* Of course, the preference for tea over coffee is used by Sumner to convey the cultural alienation an Englishman may experience in a community far distant from his own—despite sharing a history and a common language. But if Latter-day Saints can relate to anything, they can certainly relate to experiencing alienation in a world where customs and practices differ considerably from their own. Is this also true of the Latter-day Saint theologian?

For me, a comprehensive exposition of the above metaphor is unnecessary. It’s sufficient only to say that (in a twist of irony) when perhaps I ought to have experienced some sort of alienation at the Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar last year at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, I actually experienced quite the opposite. For the first time throughout my academic studies, I happened upon my native community—albeit in a foreign land.

Now presently, there seems to be much talk of ‘theology’ and ‘theologians’ amongst Latter-day Saint scholars. Chiefly, three kinds of arguments are made. Firstly, some argue that one needs to study theology before one can practise it, or that theologians are especially ‘trained’. Some self-consciously (and continually) refer to the words ‘theology’, ‘theological’, or ‘theologise’, in the hope that this will make their work ‘theological’ (despite not doing things differently). And finally, some (yes, some) spend their time criticising all others for neither being theologians, nor writing theologically—whilst viewing only themselves as the true ‘theologians’.

Yet, despite all this, when I arrived at the Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar, I found myself—an English medievalist and aspiring theologian completing a doctorate at Oxford—in the midst of a community of theologians: all gathered (from various institutions and stages in their academic careers) to faithfully scrutinise a written nineteenth-century ‘revelation’ directed to Emma Hale Smith.

I cannot express all that I learned throughout the seminar from its leaders and participants as we poured over D&C 25. But I can say that the philosopher, musicologist, church historian, comparative-literature scholar, and medievalist, all collaborated to produce a harmonious, beautiful, and compelling re-interpretation of a text that presents God’s voice and words to the eyes, ears, and hands of a woman. And this interdisciplinary collaboration well reflects the skill-set of the theologian: one who is trained in hymnody, musicology, church history, manuscript culture, literature, palaeography, philology, religious thought and practice, anthropology, and so forth.

My thoughts here, developed in response to my time in New York, articulate both what it means, and what it does not mean, to be a theologian. A theologian is critical yet collaborative, well-balanced and welcoming, both intellectually aware and self-aware, trained yet teachable, polymathic but not omniscient. And a Latter-day Saint theologian is not an individual, but a participant in a fluid and naturally-emerging community of scholars, who each share the characteristics of openness and intelligence.

On the final day of the seminar, I responded to a question about whether or not I would hope to one-day see a Latter-day Saint ‘school’ of theology. In the past, I have joked about such a place existing in the future. But, in that present moment, I responded ‘NO!’ The beauty of the Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar is that it accepts applicants from a range of institutions, working in various academic disciplines, and unites them under a collaborative cause. Should the career of the theologian be rigid and intentional, according to a certain school of thought? Certainly not! Any true vocation emerges in a natural and organic way—responding to the heavenly call to teach and learn; to think and write collaboratively as one body, for the benefit of the whole Church. Are we no more strangers and foreigners?

Or, put more succinctly, am I no longer an Englishman in New York?

*Ed. note: The author’s British spelling, punctuation, idioms have been preserved.