Do Latter-day Saints need to do theology?

12.15.2020 | The Maxwell Institute

A guest post by Dr. James E. Faulconer, adapted from the introduction to his new book, Thinking Otherwise: Theological Explorations of Joseph Smith’s Revelations.

Perhaps you aren’t one of those people who sits up late at night trying to figure out Anselm’s proof of God’s existence or puzzling over the ancient philosophical question of the One and the Many. As a philosopher and theologian myself, I recognize not everyone wants to do theology. Frankly, I believe almost no one needs to. Even for people who have good reason for doing theology, there’s no question that theological thinking takes a back seat to doing—we live in the world where everyday needs press around us. A world where “trust in the Lord” means doing things, not only believing them or figuring out how one belief relates to another. For believers, doing includes caring for the poor and oppressed as one among them. It includes bearing one another’s burdens. It means being baptized and keeping covenant with God and our fellows in the way we live our lives. We cannot claim either to trust God or to worship God if the practices of our religion are not central.

As true as all that is, there are nevertheless occasions when one really does need to do theology.

Sometimes the need is ethical: someone has asked me a question about the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—perhaps a person of another faith, perhaps a struggling sister or brother—and I am obliged to respond with reasons for those teachings.

Sometimes the need is psychological: I have the theological disease, an itch that wants scratching, and theology is the only lidocaine available to stop me from scratching until I bleed.

Other times the theological need may be merely a matter of pleasure: it’s fun and enlightening to think with friends about questions of theology, to try one’s answers out against the responses of others, as in the debates that Joseph Smith and other early Latter-day Saints organized in the lyceums and debating societies of Nauvoo.

And for some of us, there is yet another reason: doing the thinking required by theology actually helps deepen our faith. We start with faith, or in other words trust, in what we have learned through the testimony of the Holy Ghost, and through theological reflection our faith is strengthened, made deeper.

My new book Thinking Otherwise is directed at Latter-day Saints who, for whatever reason, feel the need to do theology. Perhaps it will help you think differently about how to explain your religion to those who ask you about it. It’s an offering to those who are struggling. Perhaps thinking otherwise about your questions will help you. I hope it is additional balm for those with the theological itch, as well as added pleasure for those doing theology for the fun of it.

More than that, I hope that the different kind of theology for which I will argue will in the end help some who read this deepen their faith.

The most important assumption driving the book is that we have seldom thought through Joseph Smith’s teachings without quietly, usually unknowingly, importing large chunks of theology that are incongruent with his teachings. In particular, we have inherited a concept of God that conflicts with the nature of God as he is revealed through Joseph Smith (e.g., as embodied, sexed, and eternally among other beings). Those two ways of understanding the divine are profoundly different, and their differences should give us a very different understanding of things theological.

Yet, though we acknowledge and even celebrate that Joseph Smith reveals a different God and a different way of thinking about religion, we seldom follow through to the theological differences his revelations imply. What difference does belief that God is embodied make, for example, to how we understand what it means to say that he is perfect? Can we assume that traditional theological thought about what it means to be a perfect being is relevant to thinking about what perfection means for the God in whom we believe?

My undergirding assumption here is that we should think carefully about Joseph Smith’s revelations, and that doing so ought to make us think otherwise than the Western philosophical tradition. These assumptions guide each chapter you’ll find in the book. The first is a discussion of the Eternal One and some instances where the idea shows up in philosophy and theology. Second is a chapter that addresses the question of what I think this inherited notion means for Latter-day Saints doing theology. Then a chapter with a few thoughts about how Joseph Smith’s teachings differ from that of the Eternal One and the implications of his teachings for thinking about God. The fourth discusses how scripture study can be an alternative to other kinds of theology, an alternative called “performative theology,” which is based foundationally on scripture study. The fifth chapter begins with a discussion of how to do the close reading of performative theology; this is followed by an example, a reading of Moses 5. The sixth and final chapter is another illustration, an analysis of Doctrine and Covenants 121.

Neither of these chapters of scripture interpretation is intended to be definitive. I merely intend to show one way of reading the verses in question. Other readers—perhaps a reader like you—will see different details in the text on different occasions with different questions in mind as they read. Such readers will give different readings of the scriptures I’ve chosen to write about. And, presumably, that could be done over and over again. That is the beauty of reading scripture in a community of believers. That is the promise of thinking theologically together. In the end, if we are thinking about our faith at all, we are thinking theologically. And theology provides occasion for Thinking Otherwise.

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James E. Faulconer is a Latter-day Saint philosopher and senior research fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Faulconer received his B.A. in English from BYU. He then received master’s and Ph.D. degrees in philosophy from Pennsylvania State University. His area of interest in philosophy is contemporary European philosophy, particularly the work of Martin Heidegger and late 20th- and early 21st-century French thinkers, particularly as that work bears on religious experience. Dr. Faulconer is author of the Maxwell Institute’s “Scriptures Made Harder” series (2013–2015) and other books such as Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions (1999), Faith, Philosophy, and Scripture (2010), and The Life of Holiness: Notes and Reflections on Romans 1, 5–8 (2012), and Mosiah: a brief theological introduction (2020).

Thinking Otherwise: Theological Explorations of Joseph Smith’s Revelations is available now.