Adam Miller on the 2015 Mormon Theology Seminar: “Turning the mind toward the heart”

08.05.2015 | The Maxwell Institute

The 2015 Mormon Theology Seminar 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 Seminar co-director Adam Miller, professor of philosophy at Collin College and author of Letters to a Young Mormon. Posts from Seminar co-director Joseph Spencer and other seminar participants will follow.—BHodges

Adam Miller

We completed the first Mormon Theology Seminar in 2008. Our text was Alma 32. This summer we completed the eighth seminar (our second live, in-person seminar), and our text was Jacob 7. Prior to our collaboration with the Maxwell Institute’s Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies on these live summer seminars, the bulk of each seminar’s work was conducted online over a span of three months and the participants met in person only for the concluding public conference. This online format made the seminar’s early work possible but, given the unique goals of the project, it also made that work difficult.

The goal of the Mormon Theology Seminar is to practice theology in a way that engages both the substance of the Mormon tradition and the broader world of theological work being done in a variety of religious traditions across the whole of academia. The Seminar is clearly a scholarly project, but it aims to be a scholarly project with heart.

I have argued elsewhere that theology, as an intellectual project, is about turning the mind toward the heart. ((Ed. note: See “A Manifesto for Mormon Theology,” in Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 59–62.)) In the same way that life defines the subject matter of a biologist or stars define the subject matter of an astronomer, charity defines the subject matter of a theologian. Charity is the most palpable and urgent manifestation of divinity. To do theology is to reflect on that manifestation.

Methodologically, the Seminar takes up this work of reflection by focusing its attention on a small slice of Mormon scripture. Scripture is charity preserved in amber. To reflect on scripture is to reflect on both the small and large scale patterns that God’s grace etches into world as that world arises and passes away. And, too, it is to reflect on the all-too-human stories that capture something about how we both respond to and run from these same displays of grace.

More, the Seminar takes up this theological work in a collaborative setting and it self-consciously aims to gather a small but diverse group of scholars from a variety of disciplines, senior scholars and graduate students, men and women. The collaborative character of this work is the key to the Seminar’s overall project.

Working collaboratively and interdisciplinarily, the richness of what a given text has to say about charity can come more sharply into focus. But, too, working collaboratively, the members of the seminar have occasion not only to reflect on charity but to enact it. The kind of community scripture aims to promote can be cultivated in the seminar room by the community of scholars working on that text. This sense of charitable community feeds immediately back into the quality of the scholarly work being done and the clarity with which charity itself come into view in these shared readings.

This, in particular, is the great advantage of the live seminars made possible by our collaboration with the Institute’s Willes Center. Being together in one room for two weeks, live and in person, magnifies the quality of the scholarly work being done because it magnifies the quality of the community being formed. And when the subject matter of the Seminar is itself charity, this magnification is all the more crucial.

The papers prepared by individual participants for public presentation and eventual publication are evidence of the Seminar’s quality and success. ((Ed. note: The first collection of essays is now available, An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32 (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2015). More collections are currently in production.)) These papers, though strong, are always a pale shadow of the weeks of intense discussions and preparation that produced them. But even these rich and lively discussions are a pale shadow of the scholarly community that crystallized around them.

Finally, hosted this past year by Union Theological Seminary in New York City—one of the country’s most prestigious seminaries—the Seminar was also able to build relationships with non-Mormon theologians. Such connections are invaluable. Long-term, the quality of this inter-religious community of scholars and theologians will be decisive for the intra-religious quality of Mormon studies. Charity, as an object of reflection, cannot be pursued alone as an individual or as a single religious community. We need each other and we need these bridges.