Steve Olsen

Comments delivered at the University of Alabama, April 17, 2000

Introduction. As you can tell from its title, this presentation owes much to a series of essays by the distinguished anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in which he argued that ordinary concepts like ?art?, ?common sense?, and ?religion? are conditioned considerably by the culture with in which the concepts are employed. I propose to illustrate this broad thesis with reference to the general concept of theology as expressed in Mormonism.

Premise 1. Religions are systems of moral, ethical, and spiritual beliefs and practices that are ultimately about God, whether that god is called Jehovah, Christ, Allah, Shiva, or some other supreme being.

Concept 1. Theology is religious discourse about God.

Conclusion 1 and Application 1. To understand the religious nature of a system of beliefs, sooner or later students must engage a people?s theology. My comments today address the nature of Mormon theology, or the religious discourse of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Historical Background. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints grew out of the ?burned-over district? of upstate New York in the 1820s as a consequence of the Second Great Awakening, in which many individuals and congregations sought the purity of Christ?s primitive church. Joseph Smith, Mormonism?s founder, grew up in a family that was caught in the conflict between denominational affiliation and individual spiritual renewal. Not knowing which way to turn, he sought divine inspiration in a grove of trees on the family farm. In answer to his sincere prayer, God the Father and his son, Jesus Christ, appeared to the fourteen year old youth in the early Spring of 1820. Rather than having Joseph join any of the churches of his day, the ?divine personages? told him that he would be instrumental in restoring the kingdom of God to earth. According to young Joseph the gospel?s restoration was inaugurated through his translation of an ancient scriptural record called the Book of Mormon, the confirmation on him by additional heavenly messengers of ancient priesthoods (considered to be the authority to act in the name of God), the organization of Christ?s church, and the revelation from heaven of additional knowledge and power, essential to preparing the earth and its inhabitants for the Second Coming of Christ and the inauguration of His millennial Kingdom.

Concept 2. The scriptural canon of the Mormon Church is called the Standard Works. The Standard Works are the official and formal foundation of orthodoxy for doctrinal teachings and administrative policy of the Latter-day Saints. The Standard Works consist of four separate volumes of scripture: Old and New Testament (King James is the officially recognized translation), the Book of Mormon (the translation by Joseph Smith of inspired records produced by exiled Israelites who lived in the New World between 600 BC and 400 AD), the Doctrine and Covenants (a selection of divine revelations to Joseph Smith and the Mormon prophets who succeeded him), and the Pearl of Great Price (various revelations, translations, and other inspired writings by Joseph Smith). While Mormons see considerable complementarily among their Standard Works, each of these publications stands independent of the others; that is, none provides systematic or explicit exegesis of the other. There is, for example, nothing like the Talmud in the Mormon theological tradition. There is also strong belief in Mormonism that only the Prophet, or President of the Church, can speak officially and formally for God on matters pertaining to doctrine and other issues of Church orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, Mormons have written, spoken, and otherwise commented extensively within and outside the faith about their religious beliefs and practices. Some of this discourse has even resembled formal, systematic, comprehensive, analytical, and rational thought. Such attempts can be particularly found in the writings of James Talmage, John Widstoe, and Bruce R. McConkie with the faith and Sterling McMurrin from a secular academic perspective. None of these writings, however, resembles the rational sophistication or analytical breadth of any of the major theologians of the Western Christian tradition. Nor is any of this formal religious discourse accepted as official doctrine, commentary, orthodoxy, or exegesis by the LDS Church, so far as concerns its use in pedagogical and administrative training materials. These writings are considered by the Church as unofficial, limited, and personal insights by individuals who are seeking, as any other individual, to make sense of Mormon scriptures.

The closest that any Latter-day Saint scripture comes to a rational explication of belief is the existence, in the Pearl of Great Price, of a brief statement of thirteen Articles of Faith, written in 1842 by Joseph Smith. These concise ?articles? are more of a credo than an in-depth discourse on the nature of God and his creations. Article one, for example, simply states ?We believe in God the Eternal Father, and in his son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.? Article two follows, ?We believe that men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam?s transgressions.? And so on.

Antithesis 1. Commenting on the absence of a formal propositional theology in Mormonism, the sociologist Thomas O?Dea concluded that Mormonism lacks an intellectual tradition that would allow for, let alone encourage the equivalent of an Aquinas, Augustine, Calvin, Kierkegaard, or other theological giants of the Western Christian tradition. On that basis, O?Dea projects that Mormon religious thought would wither and die when exposed to the rigors of higher biblical criticism, scientific archaeology, and other academic traditions whose premises and methodologies were considered by some to be at odds with those of conservative Christianity.

Antithesis 2. More willing that O?Dea to give Mormons a functionalist benefit of doubt to their absence of a formal propositional theology, the anthropologist Mark Leone concluded that Mormonism has a ?do-it-yourself? theology. That is, he claims that while public religious discourse among the Latter-day Saints may give the impression of mutual spiritual understanding, its real purpose is the creation of a community of Saints who share only the impression but lack the substance of doctrinal solidarity and depth.

Synthesis 1. Both O?Dea and Leone have contributed significant insights to a social scientific understanding of Mormon religious thought: (a) that Mormonism is not likely ever to produce or officially accept a formal propositional theology in a manner similar to the recognition during the Renessiance of Thomas Aquinas as the official theologian of the Catholic Church, (b) that Mormonism allows for a considerable range of individual interpretation on a variety of religious beliefs, and (c) that socialization is a vital outcome of public religious discourse among the Latter-day Saints.

Accepting these insights, however, does not require that we either anticipate the eventual demise of Mormon theology or conclude that it lacks depth and rigor. Indeed, the inquiry by Latter-day Saints into the foundations and implications of their faith from a variety of academic perspectives has never been better supported by the Church, its agencies, and its members.
In what follows, I suggest that both scholars were led to conclusions about Mormon theology that were only partially correct because they had expectations and assumptions about the nature of theology that do not apply directly or completely to Mormon religious discourse. Thus, they missed the essence, vitality, and rigor of this core dimension of Mormon identity. I offer two principles that, if better understood, would have led these and other commentators of contempory Mormonism to mor reliable conclusions. I then suggest several implications of this concept of theology for understanding more generally a Mormon world view.


Mormonism will likely never develop a comprehensive propositional theology, because the foundation of Mormon religious thought is not propositional logic. Rather, it is spiritual experience. That is, Mormon thought is grounded less in reason that in experience. While Mormon thought does not deny the value of logical constructions and systematic reasoning, it does not rel oem for its rigor and power.

From a Mormon perspective, coming to know God is like getting to know a dear loved one, like a Heavenly Father. While much about intimate human relations can be abstracted into thought or speech, these abstractions cannot perfectly or totally comprehend experience or successfully define the complexities of interpersonal relationships. The process of coming to know a heavenly parent requires as much action as though, and much of the essential action in this process involves repentance from sins and obedience to God?s law so that a person can receive a change of heart in order to experience God more purely and directly through the witness of the Holy Ghost and to understand him through the inspired records of his actions and sayings contained in the scriptures. The process is not so rational as relational; hence, the need for a Mormon anthropology as much as a Mormon theology. Furthermore, this process of coming to know God is never completed in mortality but extends into eternity where progress continues to the end that mankind can indeed become perfected in all things, like unto God.

Therefore, Mormons believe that only those who become like God through this experiential process will ever truly know God. The popular Mormon couplet that expresses this ?audacious? (Harold Bloom?s term) theology is: ?As man now is, God once was; and as God now is, man may become.? The thought component of Mormon theology assists in making spiritual experience understandable to one?s self and others, but thought never displaces the necessity of experience. Two core sayings in Mormon thought bring this concept clearly home: ?True religion is revealed religion? (Bruce R. McConkie), and false religion is ?the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture.?

The distinguished historian of religions, Martin Marty, articulated this fundamental premise of Mormonism in a keynote address to the Mormon History Association in 1983, in which he defined the ?miracle of Mormonism? in terms of two core events: (1) Joseph Smith?s First Vision, in which he claimed personal visitation from God the Father and Jesus Christ, and (2) the revelation and translation of the Book of Mormon. After setting the stage for understanding the relationship in Mormonism between historical analysis and faith, Marty offered this analogy and commentary. ?When Cardinal de Polignac told Madame du Deffand that the martyr St. Denis, the first Bishop of Paris, had walked a hundred miles carrying his head in his hand, Madame du Deffand correctly observed, ?In such a promenade it is the first step that is difficult.? By analogy, if the beginning of the promenade of Mormon history, the First Vision and the Book of Mormon, can survive the crisis [of historical consciousness], then the rest of the promenade follows and nothing that happens in it can really detract from the miracle of the whole. If the first steps do not survive, there can only be antiquarian, not fateful or faith-full interest in the rest of the story? (JMH, 10 [1983], p. 9). As in Mormon historiography, so in Mormon theology: the foundations are events – spiritual experiences – that change the nature not just of a person?s inner self, but also of the very essence of his world. And as for corporate Mormonism, so for individual Mormonism: spiritual experiences lie at the foundation of one?s spiritual identity.


The conceptual flexibility of Mormon theology is appropriate only within very specific parameters, two of the most important of which are that individual interpretations do no challenge, qualify, or undermine the reality of the spiritual experiences that give rise to the religious thought and that they do not presume to speak for the Church as a whole.

The First Vision, for example, has been used by Latter-day Saints since 1830 as an ultimate justification for some two dozen major Mormon beliefs and practices that gave rise to the religious thought – from the nature of God and the reality of Satan to the necessity of a gospel restoration in the latter days and of a living prophet to head Christ?s church. But none of these particular interpretations or rationalizations of this spiritual experience comprehends or supersedes the fact of the spiritual experience itself. In other words, the Mormon belief in a corporeal, anthropomorphic God derives ultimately from Joseph Smith?s First Vision and subsequent revelations, not from rational discourse on the topic. Likewise, Mormon thought holds to the reality of a great apostasy from primitive Christianity as a logical consequence of not as an antecedent to Joseph Smith?s First Vision.

As another case in point, the Book of Mormon claims to be an ancient scriptural record produced in the New World by exiles from Jerusalem, whose civilization flourished and collapsed prior to the European settlement of America. Mormon archaeologists have tried since the mid-nineteenth century to empirically prove this claim through scientific means. At different times, various places throughout the Western Hemisphere have been considered the homeland of this ?remnant of Israel,? as they call themselves. But to no avail. Circumstantial evidence exists to bolster the belief of Latter-day Saints, but no concrete evidence dispels the doubt of empirical scientists. Yet as geographical and cultural hypotheses come and go, Mormons seem entirely capable of shifting from one to another, without endangering their faith in the least, because their faith in the Book of Mormon isn?t borne of, and it will not die from, mankind?s abilities or lack thereof to prove or disprove its truthfulness.

In these and many other cases in Mormonism, considerable latitude exists to interpret, from a personal and unofficial perspective, the corpus of spiritual experience and revelation. Hence Leone?s impression that Mormon theology is a ?do-it-yourself? enterprise. Nevertheless, the latitude of individual interpretation never accommodates a repudiation of the revelation that brought the doctrine into existence or the displacement of the authority of the current Prophet to speak and act for God on official matters of belief and practice.

While insightful in their own right, the conclusions of O?Dea and Leone about Mormon theology are partial and flawed, perhaps because they expected to find in Mormonism simply an American version of traditional Christianity, in which propositional logic was the foundation and ultimate expression of formal religious thought. Perhaps their own Catholic backgrounds colored their expectations of what Mormonism ought to be, so that when they didn?t find what they were looking for, they concluded that Mormon thought was somehow deficient.

My purpose here is not to disparage these otherwise fine studies of the Latter-day Saints. Rather it is to suggest that each system of religious thought needs to be understood in its own terms, according to its own logic. From the surface, Mormonism is enough like other Christian religions to cause a researcher to assume more similarity than is really warranted. We know from formal logic that if an argument begins with incorrect assumptions, then its conclusions will likely be skewed, even with impeccable evidence.

Implications: What do we make of Latter-day Saint theology? From a Mormon point of view,

1. God is in control. Human beings, of themselves, cannot discover the character of God or profound [sic] his works.

2. While mankind?s understanding of God is necessarily limited, God is not inscrutable. He willing reveals himself, through the mediation of the Holy Ghost, according to the preparation and willingness of his children to accept and follow his directives. The result is a dynamic relationship with God, not an abstract theological construct.

3. This kind of spiritual understanding involves, and requires, the whole person – conscious and kinetic, ration and relational, moral and mindful – to receive the witness of God. Hence the way is open to all, not just scholars, to fulfill the measure of their creation and come to God through Christ.

4. The heavens are open; hence the scriptural canon is expanding. Another of Joseph Smith?s Articles of Faith reads, ?We believe all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal. And we believe that he will ye reveal man great important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.?

5. The current President of the Church is not simply a religious steward of the revelations of Joseph Smith. He holds the same priesthood authority and spiritual responsibility to speak for God and direct his Church in our day that Joseph Smith held in his and that Christ?s ancient Apostles had in theirs.

6. Mormons can use any tools of intellectual, academic, or scientific inquiry to explore the implications of revelations and other spiritual experiences, but none of these man-made modes of discovery can substitute for, qualify, or displace the divine act of revelation. To do otherwise is to confuse event with its interpretation.

7. Any particular construction of the Mormon religious world view is contingent and partial, susceptible to reformulation at any time borne of subsequent revelation. Thus Mormons can adapt to even radical reformulation at any time of their theological constructs with relative ease. Witness in Mormon history the relatively smooth transition out of 19th century polygamy and from racist policies of priesthood ordination in the present century. There will, therefore, likely never be in Mormon theological crises like those which traditional Christianity experienced with the eclipse of Aquinian and Calvinist theologies. It is even possible, because of their belief in continuing revelation, for Mormons to live in religious universe that is ironic, dialectical, paradoxical, and even contradictory. For example, Mormons have no difficulty in holding simultaneously to the beliefs in special creation and the geologic age of the earth, in Mendelian genetics and the gender of specific identity of pre-mortal spirits, in democracy and theocracy, in charismatic and bureaucratic authority, in communal and individual salvation, and in spiritual and material imperatives, to name a few. On a more purely theological basis, Mormons hardly ever concern themselves with the question of whether faith or works is more essential to salvation, whether God?s foreknowledge limits man?s agency, or of the dynamic interplay between justice and mercy, unless the discussion relates directly to a person?s actions or attitudes vis-à-vis God. In other words, there is hardly anything purely abstract about Mormon religious thought. By the same token, almost every aspect of Mormonism is capable of theological abstraction. Witness, for example, the spiritual justification for basketball courts in Mormon meeting houses, for the interdiction against consuming tobacco, alcohol, coffee, and tea, and for participating in family outings, quilting bees, community service projects, and congregational dances and dinners and so on.

8. This behavioral emphasis neither excuses ignorance or subverts intelligence in Mormon thought. In fact, one of Joseph Smith?s revelations declare unequivocally, ?the glory of God is intelligence.? It does, however, qualify the value of human mental capacity and place it within a larger and more complex spiritual epistemology, a systematic discussion of which may have to await another occasion.

Steve Olsen has a Ph.D in anthropology from the University of Chicago. He is a senior curator at the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City and is an adjunct professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University.