Michael Ulrich asks “can a mathematician do Mormon theology?”

07.28.2014 | Guest

The first annual Mormon Theology Seminar recently wrapped things up in London (see here for more). I didn’t get to go to London to participate, so I asked seminar participants to reflect on their experiences in order to give me a sense of what they got out of the gathering. This post features Michael Ulrich, a PhD student in mathematics at Université de Franche-Comté (France). His research interests include free probabilities. In his free time he studies the scriptures and LDS church history. —BHodges

I participated at the beginning of June in the Summer Seminar on Mormon Theology. But how can theology be important or useful in a Mormon context? And why would I do “Mormon theology,” considering that I am a Mathematician and have no training whatsoever in theology, ancient scriptures, philosophy, etc.?

Let me first answer the latter question. I believe that scriptures are a gift of God for all of us and that we all ought to search them and to study them. I love them and I love the insights they are giving me on my own life and how they act as a way for me to receive revelation.

As I prepared myself to participate in the seminar, my feelings were a mix of joyous anticipation and nervous anxiety; joyous anticipation because of my love for the scriptures and my desire to expand my understanding of them, nervous anxiety because of my lack of academic training in the fields related to theology. Would I be able to make any valuable contribution? And probably the great lesson that I learned from that Seminar was not so much about some great insights that I gained on this or that aspect of the Book of Mormon, rather it was to experience how the Spirit can help you and increase your abilities, even in work that is academic by nature.

In the first week, we spent the mornings working individually on an assigned passage of 1 Nephi 1 and we would share and discuss our work in the afternoon. Each morning as I was getting ready to work on my assignment I began with a prayer, asking Heavenly Father that He would grant me to do and write something valuable for our project. And as I did so, I experienced how I was able to notice structures and patterns in the text that I never saw before. It was for me a wonderful experience, strengthening me in my faith that God will help us in our endeavors if we earnestly pray. It answered my question: yes, a mathematician can do Mormon theology!

Now, even though I said that I felt God’s inspiration working with me during the Seminar, I do not pretend to say that everything that I said during these two weeks – or everything I wrote in the article that will be published –  is inspired. I tried to write and talk according to the best of my knowledge and according to what I felt but I am responsible for it and do not consider my writings to constitute church doctrine. This is actually perhaps the great limitation of theology in the LDS context: Theologians are not prophets or apostles, they were not given divine authority to expound the scriptures and to receive revelation. They do not decide what doctrine is for the church. All they do is to analyze scriptures according to their own understanding and to the tools they have at their disposal. They do not present findings as revelation. Actually, they even may have to change their minds if some new revelation comes through the proper channel!

So we come back to our first question: why should Latter-Day Saints do theology? Now that I have stressed its limitations, why should we bother doing it? Would it not be best to leave entirely the activity of expounding on the scriptures to our leaders and those who have received a divine commission to talk in behalf of the entire church?

I believe that it is the duty of every member to search the scriptures, precisely because they are a gift of God to every individual. One of the marvelous aspects of the restored gospel is that every person is invited to become active and involved in his relationship with God. We are each invited to pray and ask for personal revelations, to read and ponder the scriptures, to show Christian love and develop Christlike attributes, to become engaged in the work of God by serving in callings, etc. And it is precisely in our personal reading and searching of the scriptures that theology can have a bearing. It is one aspect–or one tool–at our disposal to study the word of God. It is not the only one but it is one of them and it can truly enrich our understanding of the gospel and of how it can be applied in our lives. We can thus say that theology is useful only when it has a practical bearing on our own spirituality.

Adam S. Miller, director of the Mormon Theology Seminar, said about theology that it “matters only to the extent that it is able to extend and show charity.” ((Adam S. Miller, ed., An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32 (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2014).)) Or, as Jim Faulconer put it in his welcoming words at the conference of this 2014 Seminar, “it has repentance as its aim.” Whether we define it through repentance or charity, theology is fruitful only if it helps us better understand the scriptures in such a way that we change our life to become more Christlike.

In brief, it should have as a goal to enrich our spiritual life.

So, yes, theology is useful for our personal lives and it thus makes sense in the Mormon context. In some way, we could even say that each member of the Church should be a theologian, in the sense that each member should be as well acquainted with the scriptures and the gospel as possible. And, yes, even a Mathematician can do theology! This is the great lesson that  remains for me: Whatever you do and whatever your background is, God can inspire you and enable you to do what is expected of you. This echoes in some ways Brigham Young’s words to Karl G. Mäser that he should not teach even something as simple as the alphabet without the Spirit of God!

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For more about this year’s seminar experience, see the guest posts by Adam Miller, Joseph Spencer, and Miranda Wilcox