Mormons and Theology
Posted by douglashunter on April 19, 2009
Something that my reading and writing of the past few months has gotten me thinking about are the distinctions between various types of thought and work that occur within the religious realm. I am wonder about the distinction between theology and ideology, between theology and philosophy, and between theology and doctrine. These area very different questions so I’ll focus on the last one.
I may not have very good language for addressing such a question. In addition for some folks this might not even be a question. So maybe I should start by asking if a distinction between theology and doctrine is meaningful in the Mormon context, or is the latter constitutive of the former and that’s that?
Granted theology has a fairly broad definition that points to the various ways we understand religion and religious beliefs. Beyond being fields of study or types of knowledge doctrine and theology are also both processes, both exist as performative aspects of a community, they are idioms and social practices. In the Mormon context I think there may be a case to be made for a distinction between theology and doctrine because of the kind of work that our leaders do, what is expected of us as teachers, priesthood holders, members, and thinkers. Along these lines might it be accurate to say that we Mormons do a lot of doctrine but very little theology?
In this sense doing doctrine means the work leaders, teachers, thinkers, etc are expected to do is to regularly re-articulate a finite set of core beliefs drawing on scripture and religious history to provide specific example of how and why doctrine is what it is, and how it applies to “daily life” etc.
But isn’t the work of theology much greater than this? What’s almost always missing within the institutional church setting (and from Mormon culture) is the idea that there is interpretive work that needs to be done, that scripture and religious history are sources for a great deal of learning and meaning beyond they ways in which they can be brought to bare on a narrow set of established doctrines. Further, doesn’t theology open the way to reinterpret doctrines in ways not previously canonized, doesn’t theology address ethics, philosophy and doctrine in broad ways that are heuristic for us members, but in excess of doctrine? What is the significance; religious, social and doctrinal of doing that kind of work, specifically in a Church with such well established methods and priorities that seems to not place much value on such work?
I think that in other religions traditions these questions are no brainers, but are they as self evident in the Mormon context? I suspect they aren’t, after all BRM wrote a book called Mormon, Doctrine not Mormon Theology, This month’s 1st pres. message is titled Teaching True Doctrine, not Teaching True Theology, obviously many more such examples abound. So how do you understand the distinction between doctrine and theology, as bodies of knowledge, as social practice, as necessary to the community, as part of teaching a GD, RS, or MP lesson? Do you do doctrine or theology? What do you find most productive?
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