On doing Mormon theology as a non-Mormon

OutsiderI have been a participant at the Third Annual Mormon Theology Seminar at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley for the past week, and it has been a refreshing experience so far. After spending the past several years straightening things out in my personal life, I feel blessed to have finally made my return to Mormon studies, finishing my master’s thesis on Mormon women’s exaltation in the past few months (and, subsequently, my MA in American religious history) and then capping it off with my participation here in Berkeley. I was surprised (and, admittedly, a little flattered) to learn that, though I am not the first never-Mormon to apply for the seminar, I am the first to be admitted to it.

Yet my participation here has led me to a bit of navel-gazing. Getting Latter-day Saints to experiment with new ways of looking at the Book of Mormon texts and test new theological ideas is one of the key aims of the Seminar. What room is there, then, for someone who believes in neither the authority of the Book of Mormon text nor the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith to “do” Mormon theology in any meaningful sense? It is no secret to me from my history of participation around the Bloggernacle that some Mormons are clannish and innately suspicious of outsiders because of who we are, not what we say. I stopped participating around the ‘nacle for many reasons, one of them being that I was tired of Mormon bloggers and Mormon commentators suggesting that I had no business being a part of the conversation, even though I am a graduate of Brigham Young University and was (at the time) married to a Mormon with progeny attending the Mormon church. I personally cannot imagine disinviting the non-Christian spouse of an Evangelical Covenant Church member from any conversation about denominational polity or culture—it is obvious to me why such a person would have a vested interest, especially if s/he was also a graduate of North Park University—yet such was the reality I was dealing with on all too regular a basis in regards to Mormon blogs. Having to repeatedly justify one’s right to even have a place at the table gets old fast, so I drifted away.

Such has thankfully not been my experience with the Mormon Theology Seminar. Adam Miller and Joe Spencer have been beyond welcoming, as have the other participants; I love everyone here and want to keep them. Not once has anyone suggested that I have no business being here because I am not LDS. Not once has anyone dismissed my ideas because I am not a member or suggested that I have asked a question that the missionaries would be happy to explain to me (this happened to me at BYU. For real.). Having fought so long for acceptance as an outsider, having seemingly finally achieved it, you can imagine my shock when it was my own brain that began suggesting I had no business being here, that my participation here was an exercise in futility. Not because my ideas are of a lesser quality than the other participants, or because I am not making interesting contributions to the discussions, but because I am not a Mormon.

You see, if anything is the domain of believers, it’s theology—the study of who God is. And who God is for me is very different from who God is for most Latter-day Saints. Certainly there are atheist theologians and even “Christian atheists” who have produced works of theology, but these are usually deconstructions of traditional Christian beliefs, and even in these cases, the theologians are overwhelmingly producing views on God that they themselves can and will embrace. I have little interest in a wholesale deconstruction of Mormon theology and, believe it or not, am not disrespectful enough to try to so on the Maxwell Institute’s dime.

So, where does that leave me?

For the first several days of my participation here, I felt as if I was generating new theological ideas with an eye for how they could fit into current LDS theology and saying, “I don’t believe in this stuff, but I think it’s a cool idea and if you want to believe in it, feel free!” I’m not sure that many theological ideas have ever gotten off the ground without the personal support of and sponsorship of their innovators, which is why I say that I began to question whether my participation here wasn’t an exercise in futility.

It finally dawned upon me two days ago that my approach here has been all wrong. I shouldn’t be generating any new theological ideas that I myself am unwilling to accept. I should, first and foremost, work on theology that I am willing to embrace and believe in, and only then should I have any concern for whether Latter-day Saints could share in my beliefs and how much they would have to alter their own theology to do so. Bob Rees mentioned in one of our early seminar conversations—in regard to someone in his life who is not a Mormon—“We don’t say ‘unbeliever,’ we say ‘different kind of believer.’” And that is exactly what I am—a different kind of believer, who should be doing theology within the boundaries of my own beliefs.

I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I believe in the holy catholic church and I believe in the Bible as the only authoritative written Word of God. I believe the Book of Mormon is 19th-century demi-Protestant theological fiction, possibly inspired in some places (but not binding or authoritative), and I believe that Joseph Smith may have been a prophet in the same sense that Balaam son of Beor was a prophet. Furthermore, I am someone with a deep fondness for Mormons, Mormonism, and Mormon studies, someone who deeply identifies with parts of it even as I reject the distinctive doctrines found therein, someone who was once willing to call the Community of Christ home (although it never happened).

It is from that paradigm that I do theology now, and under those considerations that I engage with Mormon theology. This may be the only way for non-Mormons to participate in something like the Mormon Theology Seminar and have their participation be meaningful.

With that said, while I may be the first non-Mormon participant at the Mormon Theology Seminar, I sincerely hope I am not the last.

(There will be a public conference at the Graduate Theological Union chapel on Wednesday, June 15th, sometime between 9 AM and 5:30 PM, wherein all of the seminar participants will present a paper that they wrote here, myself included. All are welcome to attend.)


On doing Mormon theology as a non-Mormon — 5 Comments

  1. Fascinating perspective—thank you for sharing. I read Stephen Webb’s book but wasn’t thinking how he might be contributing to Mormon theology; I sort of assumed he was just describing it, but from a Catholic’s POV. This post has got me wondering how Webb, you, and other non-Mormons *contribute* to Mormon theology. Looking forward to reading your essay when it comes out!

  2. Thank you for the generous gifts you have brought to us as Mormons. I have always considered thoughtful outsiders as some of the most valuable contributors to Mormon studies—you join Thomas O’Dea, Jan Shipps, and John Turner as among Mormonism’s prized thinkers. This is so precisely because you are NOT a Mormon. You stand outside the circle and hence provide the theological mirror that we lack. If you ever decide to back out, I will understand. But it will be our loss.

  3. #1 Thanks Bert! I haven’t read Webb’s book myself (to my shame, I know, but I have been out of the loop for a while) so I can’t say whether he’s really adding to Mormon theology or just describing it, but it could be that he is.

    #2 Thanks, Mark, you are too kind.

  4. So good to see the Bridget Jack name again. And this was lovely: “Ths is exactly what I am—a different kind of believer, who should be doing theology within the boundaries of my own beliefs.” Glad you participated in the Seminar. All the best to you.