As I write this letter, my sabbatical year and post-doc research fellowship at Yale, alas, is ended.
My Four Paragraph Intellectual Autobiography
In my university studies for some reason I found my way slowly to the Book of Mormon.
Initially, the scriptures that introduced me to the Word of God were the letters of St. Paul and a book esteemed almost as highly, Jesus the Christ, a theological treatise by the latter-day Apostle, James E. Talmage. These attracted me in the first instance not for any unique spiritual reasons. Quite the contrary: like it or not I’m an intellectual. So is Paul.
So was Elder Talmage, who was also a theologian, who also advocated the doing of theology for Mormons. Interestingly, in his study, Elder Talmage drew heavily from three non-Mormon theologians.
(I have explained this in much more detail on the web somewhere at Professor Daniel Peterson’s ‘Mormon Testimonies Even Though They’re Intellectuals and Scholars’ web site.)
This year was a synthesis of serious illness with truly serious study of the Book of Mormon.
The Reality of Deity is There in the Book of Mormon
You may have had the experience some mornings of not being surprised if when opening the Book of Mormon, some days the pages burst into a blast of pure light.
As a Yale post-doc, and I say this with apologies to those like myself 30 years ago who hate trite language because here it comes, I confess I learned some things in academia which I can recall now I had first learned as a Sunbeam.
I learned that the reason we expect light upon opening the Book of Mormon is that the reality of deity is in there. Accordingly, as a Yale post-doc, I learned that the point of the scriptures is not to theorize about them.
No, theology points to the scriptures to encourage we obey them.
And here I can speak from unwanted recent expertise: soon enough, we will each be alone with God.
I Find a Friend to the Mormon Church in the Danish Thinker, Soren Kierkegaard
I learned these past years as a Yale post-doc from Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish thinker who wrote in the 1840s.
I agree with him that “Christian scholarship is a prodigious invention to defend us against” the Scriptures. Kierkegaard mocked the present age, understanding regarding theology it was as if our age said, “‘Oh priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall in the hands of the living God.’”
“Lest we forget, the Scriptures are but highway signs: Christ, the beloved, is the way,” noted Kierkegaard in his Journals and Papers (III, 270-73).
Is There a Theology “Racket”
A good theology always exhorts us to take any words in the scriptures and forget everything except, pledging yourself to act accordingly.
Since around 87 B.C., when Nehor in the Book of Mormon first unveiled a theory about what the scriptures “really” mean, there have always been souls ready to buy into an undemanding “religion.”
For the sinner who wants no bothers of conscience, a Nehor group of Christians is always at hand. “Conscience,” states Shakespeare “makes cowards of us all.” Shakespeare meant we became cowards to sin.
Awe and trembling before God to work out one’s salvation is, in Alma 1:4, first jettisoned, then replaced. Nehor’s replacement is theory, to construct a theory of interpretation than blocks scriptural interpretation. Theory might be contrasted with story. The Primary sings not, “Tell me the theories of scripture I love to hear.
Theory creates an insulated theology that is, to my learning, paradigmatic of all bad theology.
Why is this the case, why is Nehor’s theory of “religion” bad?
Here we can make theological consensus across the denominations: Nehor is a failed theologian, through wealthy for priestcraft, for two reasons. The first reason is that Nehor preaches a false theory of the real thing, instead of simply preaching the real thing. “Tell me the stories of Jesus,” our children sing. The second reason is that Nehor’s essence of theology is admittedly completely unpinned from Scripture.
H. Richard Niebuhr, a Yale Professor of Theology, wrote in 1941 a book still selling well entitled The Meaning of Revelation. The book’s central claim is for we Christians, understanding “what is going on is a matter of following a story: we all love to hear. The central chapter is entitled “The Stories of Our Lives.” Niebuhr is helpful in explaining reasons why Nehor’s –or Sterling McMurrin’s—gamesmanship in theology is intellectual at the expense of spiritual experiences.
“The preaching of the early Church was not an argument for the existence of God [.] It was primarily a simple recital of the great events connected with the historical appearance of Jesus Christ . . . . Whatever it was the church meant to say . . . could be indicated only in connection with an historical person and events in the life of his community.”
Similarly, in a book still read about the Old Testament published in 1952 by G.E. Wright called The God Who Acts, Wright “concludes that any justifiable biblical theology must constantly keep in mind” that “Israel’s doctrine of God was not derived from systematic or speculative thought, but rather from the events which led to the establishment of the nation.” (Ellipses deleted.)
Inconsistency in a Finite World
An inconsistent and propositionless theology that chops no logic is aesthetically displeasing only at first glance, if perhaps an aesthetical dimension matters to you. In any event, such a theology has going for it that the scriptures themselves are characterized by inconsistencies.
To be theologically true to the scriptures means a theology that is also characterized by inconsistencies.
Here story or narrative is much truer than theories and essences.
Systematic theologies have always run into the problem of falsifying scripture.
On another level, systems conflict with perhaps the most basic fact characteristic of the Book of Mormon. The texts inside the Books are perspicacious. It is as if we are present when we read the Book of Mormon. As Karl Barth saw the fact that scripture is perspicacious means and presumes that doubt is uninvolved. If doubt were involved in our reading, then the relation between the Book of Mormon and its reader could never be self-interpreting.
Philosophy is not “foundational for theology,” it has been observed. “It’s a separate kingdom.” Theology is not hostile to Philosophy or, for that matter, History. It is hostile to historicism, which is the effort to reduce the Scriptures to questions of historical investigation.
Mormon History and Mormon Philosophy need to talk. In academic theology, it’s ordinary to speak of the subject of angels, for examples. Theologians routinely include “Angelology” when speaking of the Creation. In contrast, to a professional Historian in the same academy, Richard Bushman reports in his essay in Expressions in Faith published in 1996 that a conference he had attended:
“Belief in angels is beyond the pale of academic conversation,” at p. 70.
Pay to Play Theology: You Must Have a Theory
Kierkegaard was a street smart guy when it came to the theology racket.
“Someone gets an impression of Christianity,” he noted. “Presto! Now there has to be a theory [.] Then he gets busy developing his theory further. Then his theory is attacked, and he defends it – constantly moving away from true religiousness. He does not personally” — all of this Soren Kierkegaard observes in his Journals and Papers (II, 418-419) – “get around to acting according to the theory but manages to introduce a theory about opposition to the theory.
The Theological Rackets as We Know Them Today
Nehor’s theory of “religion” is evergreen. Today, Nehor teams with Gnosticism instead of the Lord, and fills the neighborhood book store with books premised on Secularity and New Age refuse.
Just go check. These books are free of the conduct we all learn from scripture and obedience-free, preaching a Gnostic dualism that whatever sins one chooses with their body, do not touch our spirit. There are churches in every Yellow Pages selling. All of it reduces to losing sight of our life as the loan from the Lord it is, as King Benjamin put it. Then the obedience –loving, trusting obedience – to the Lord for the self He has created me to be begins to fade, seeming less plausible to us.
To start to particularize how the theological rackets work, according to SK it is with the commentaries on the Scriptures one can start to lose their way. Amazingly, a commentary on scripture can be Nehorian, just a theory of the particular scripture rather than the scripture, and then shazam, the scripture has been reduced to an intellectual construct that someone happened to think up without anything of Deity in it.
The Scriptures ought to “stand alone,” as President Marion G. Romney was able to explain clearly and humorously. He wanted to drink from a clear mountain stream upstream from where the cows waded across. I think what he was really saying is that the Scriptures need no commentaries.
Again, the anonymous Mormon, Soren Kierkegaard (nicknamed “SK”) has a point to share.
“Today’s army of scriptural interpreters,” he said, “have damaged, more than they have helped,” our understanding of the Scriptures. The matter is quite simple: the Scriptures are easy to understand. “But we Christians,” observed SK “are a bunch of swindlers.”
“My goodness, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?”
With Malice Toward None
Kierkegaard’s solution, ironically stated was “Kill the Commentators!”
Here we bid goodbye to our esteemed friend SK, as the Book of Mormon makes a clean break with contention to forbid it. II Nephi 26:32.
The hyperbole of even saying, “Kill the Commentators,” is out. 3 Nephi 11:29.
Frequently, theology is at the root of the Book’s most contentious moments. Ether 11:7. Historically, internationally, religious contention is as fresh as todays –and especially yesterday’s– headlines.
Much of the commandments against contention as set forth in Moroni 8:19-28 are about theological disputes which would arise in the Old World once St. Augustine “logic chopped” his way from a faulty doctrine of original sin to require infant baptism.
Mormon on St. Augustine because of infant baptism: “Pray for them . . . that repentance may come to them. Little children are alive in Christ [and] it is mockery before Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works.” Moroni 8: 28, 22, 23. Here is the point, I think, of such strong language, joined to the remedy of (only) prayer on behalf of the bad theologian.
The meaning and truth of Book of Mormon theology is not neutral. But it is not contentious either. Rather, the meaning and truth of the Book of Mormon theology is self-involving, drawing the reader in to bring us around.
The point, I think, is that theology “was and is to direct [us] to Holy Scripture . . . in order that, whether they be delighted or annoyed . . . , they may at least be brought face to face with the subject matter of the scripture.”
The titles of some of Luther’s pamphlets are hilarious and sad, in how they make the point that Luther fought for theological truth with a wagonload of contention and a clean conscience.
Luther’s pamphlets — Against the Papal Ass in Rome, or Against the Incendiary Sophists of Louvain University — were justified by Scripture.
For example, Luther cited Galatians 2:14, where Paul contending sharply with Peter was one of Luther’s precedents.
Ask Not What is the Question, Ask Instead, “What Did the Question Teach?”
It is not ordinarily useful to use the Book to clarify if it the Book of Mormon prophets have more or have less (i) a Christ-centered pneumatology or (ii) a Spirit-centered Christology: agreed?
However, as a crowbar to my head with the other hold an open Book of Mormon, it does me good on the 41st reading to think about the text asking such a question or any other. Why? How?
I do not know, but I can testify that the divine mode of involvement in the Book overrules my human mode, partly because I already know that.
I Hope I Finish the Book on the Book
My effort in writing is only justified by the whole, but its Christian doctrines will be those indigenous to the Book’s own perspicacious, figural and narrative theologies.
Take any words in the Scriptures and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly.
I have a confession to get out. Getting a Yale PhD was never a goal of mine; I’d applied to the Mormon divinity school–the “B” School at Harvard. To paraphrase St. Paul, the good that I wanted I could not have while what effortlessly was given me, I did not want.
But then I woke up one day in 2010, and Mark Cannon had re-ignited the relevance to me of my PhD. And in googling my Yale classmates, they had all ascended into Chairs. The Yale network out there in the country had once, for years, all been galley slaves together in New Haven. The book on the Book is especially for these friends, to make manifest the Book’s witness to Jesus Christ.
Brother Brigham in the compilation by Elder Widtsoe states it simply (without implying uniqueness or ‘being special’–to the contrary, Vancouver Island had had an appeal): “I cannot help being here.”
(c) 2011 Ashby D Boyle II