Sharing the richness of the Book of Mormon at the Mormon Theology Seminar

08.04.2016 | The Maxwell Institute

In this guest post Joseph Spencer, co-director of the Mormon Theology Seminar, kicks off a series of blog posts from the 2016 Seminar participants.

The 2016 Mormon Theology Seminar participants at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

The Mormon Theology Seminar is rapidly approaching its tenth birthday. For nearly a decade, we have been organizing seminars on Latter-day Saint scripture. Until 2014, our seminars were conducted online, though we concluded each seminar by gathering together for a public symposium before publishing the results. But since 2014, we’ve conducted live, in-person seminars with groups of scholars from around the world: in London, at BYU’s London Centre; in New York City, at Union Theological Seminar; and now, this year, in Berkeley, California, at the Graduate Theological Union. Thanks to a rich and productive partnership with the Maxwell Institute’s Willes Center—and now this year, also with BYU’s Wheatley Institution—we’ve been able to do these seminars in a live format, in person for two weeks, hosted by important institutions of religious learning. This year, we took as our text Alma 12:19–13:20, comprising Alma’s reflections on God’s means of communicating with his children and his teachings regarding the holy order of the high priesthood. For the project, we brought together a group of nine scholars hailing from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds: Kris Black, sociologist; Matthew Bowman, historian; Rosemary Demos, comparativist; David Gore, rhetorician; Bridget Jeffries, historian; Adam Miller, philosopher; Bob Rees, literary scholar; Joe Spencer, philosopher; and Sheila Taylor, theologian. Co-directed, as usual, by Adam Miller and myself, we worked our way through the text for five intense days before dividing up to produce a collaborative summary report of our findings, as well as individual papers. These will eventually be published in the Maxwell Institute’s Proceedings of the Mormon Theology Seminar series. During the first sequence of the seminar, each participant produced a short paper every day along with textual notes and questions for the group. For five to six hours each afternoon, we discussed the text and shared the day’s findings. And we had visitors, some of whom we were privileged to have speak to us about their own work and research: faculty members from the GTU, visiting and local Latter-day Saint scholars, local Institute instructors, and more. As our first week of work came to an end, we turned our attention to the task of producing individual papers on topics of our choosing—with papers on theological themes like grace and justice, on existential questions like what it means to “converse” or about the nature of the human condition, on practical matters like the scope of the priesthood or the role of the heart in religion, and on textual questions like the setting of Alma’s sermonizing or the broader scriptural theme of the typological. As we produced our individual papers, we divided into partnerships to produce various parts of a collaborative summary report of our findings during the seminar, aimed at capturing the best of our insights throughout the course of our discussions. This will appear alongside the individual papers in the published proceedings. (Maxwell Institute Digital Pass holders can read a summary report from an earlier Proceedings volume here.) Our two weeks in Berkeley ended with a public symposium held in the beautiful Chapel of the Great Commission on campus at the GTU. The papers were impressive and the discussion was rich. We look forward to seeing the papers in general circulation. For more about the Proceedings book series see here. The Institute plans to catch up publishing the past few collections in 2017. Over the next several weeks, the Maxwell Institute blog will post reflections written by the 2016 Mormon Theology Seminar participants. We’ll leave it to them to describe the experience of sitting down with only two pages of text for two weeks, of working in intense collaboration with others to make sense of a text that proves itself richer than expected once one begins working on it. As co-directors of the seminar, Adam and I can only say that we cherish these annual seminars as the best work we’re involved in. The opportunity to work with such stellar individuals on such theologically productive texts is more than we deserve. We owe much to the Willes Center (and especially to the Willes family for their generosity) and to the Wheatley Institution for their support. We hope to continue to investigate and to share the richness of the Book of Mormon.