Line upon Line
Gary James Bergera, editor
Speculative Theology: Key to a Dynamic Faith
Thaddeus E. Shoemaker
[p.1]Since the ancient Greeks, thinking people have looked to philosophy and theology to shed light on both the number and kind of problems with which the human family struggles. In the nineteenth century, Mormonism–followers and leaders alike–embraced a radical speculative theology. But many Mormons today seem to have abandoned this heritage of radical thought and have substituted hyperactivity for insightful inquiry. Put another way, they attempt to sustain their faith with works, believing that scriptural admonition and authority demand it. All too frequently church activity itself becomes an acceptable end to the expression of religion. Contemporary Mormons are generally content to live off the speculative insights of others, regardless of the contradictions inherent in such behavior.
This transformation resulted, I believe, from a lack of faith in the soundness of individual initiative, discussion, and decision regarding theological matters. Mormons appear in most instances to be content to be led and governed by the few in leadership positions. But even among the organizational heads there is a lack of speculative insight, if the quality of books and articles presently offered is evidence. Most Latter-day Saints are motivated by borrowed light rather than by insights and truths garnered by studious inquiry.
Ordinarily, this lack of inquiry describes the failure of any radical innovation to sustain itself for long. But Mormonism declares that every man is potentially a priest and every woman a priestess, [p.2]each possessing unique powers embryonic in form and identical in substance to those possessed by deity. Mormon theology rejects the necessity of a hierarchy of spiritual elites and condemns such a notion as sectarian. Salvation, temporal and spiritual, is an individual responsibility. The church and its programs and activities are only processes to assist each member in working out his or her own salvation. No person can be saved in ignorance, but it is not the church’s role to dispel ignorance. Rather it is the individual’s responsibility to seek knowledge and then use the church and its resources to help apply this new insight. To place the church and its leadership in the role of saviors is sacrilegious and denies that most sacred of all doctrines and principles, free agency. Each Latter-day Saint will be held accountable for the amount of knowledge he or she possesses, and on this will all ultimately be judged.
Why do so many of the Saints seem to resist such self-scrutiny? It is an error to assume that raising questions (or speculating) about the restored gospel leads to apostasy. If the gospel of Jesus Christ embraces all truth regardless of where it is found, then seekers will welcome the challenges and tests that come from the free exchange of ideas and beliefs. Revealed truth requires individual initiative, discussion, and decision regarding all of life’s questions. This is particularly true with regard to theological ones.
Speculative theology serves the same purpose for the gospel of Jesus Christ as does the philosophy of religion for the field of philosophy. Speculative theology is not necessarily concerned with justifying or disparaging any particular belief, doctrine, or practice of Mormonism, nor is it concerned solely with the plausibility or reasonableness of the church’s dogma and teachings. Speculative theology tests the church’s claim of possessing special and vitally important knowledge about the nature of the world and universe and the role of men and women in them. Properly pursued, it leads not to agnosticism or atheism. Neither does one have to be agnostic or atheist to engage in this intellectual endeavor. No, properly pursued, speculation leads to an affirmation—a continuing renewal, not destruction, although a destructive element is present—of one’s faith. In other words, speculative theology affirms the very things it questions.
The crucial issue for speculative theology is recognizing that in revealing truth God seldom explains why he commands or [p.3]instructs. Finding out why becomes an individual search. Our desire to know causes unexpected consternations and at times agonies. We accept what God has said on faith–the essential initial step if the journey to eternal life is ever to begin. However, progression is minimal if faith does not lead to knowledge.
Speculative theology recognizes that knowledge of the truth is always partially destructive to faith. Scriptural instruction is precise on this matter (see Al. 32:17-27). But it is wrong to assume that the pursuit of knowledge through speculation should be avoided because of its destructive qualities. Learning and growth include and proceed from the “destructive” process called “positive disintegration.” All knowledge destroys the faith it replaces, calling into existence the need for newer and more dynamic faith. Because we are both imperfect in our apprehension of knowledge and are unable to perfectly apply it to reality, new questions are raised for which answers are sought. The cycle is repeated and the continuous application of this process Mormonism calls eternal progression.
Speculative theology avoids the negativism which sometimes accompanies intellectual inquiry, because creative doubt proceeds from the converse of skepticism–doubts arise because sufficient knowledge is lacking. Creative doubt leads to growth and fulfillment because it motivates a desire to know the consequences of continued questioning, inquiring, and applying what we know to real life. Concomitantly, and in some way inextricably, is the concept of incrementalism—that knowledge is acquired (and lost) step by step. However, the key to its retention is found in how, in what way, and for what reason it is applied in our lives. Activity multiplied by activity, unquestioningly doing “one’s duty” without understanding, will not reward or fulfill, nor will it sustain faith. For personal growth and development are as important as the efficient functioning of the church. The institution is a means to exaltation, never the end. Thus the church is truly a hospital for sinners, not a museum for the Saints. If there were no sin one would not need the church—even the perfect “true” one—just as one would not need a hospital—even a perfect one—if there were no illness or disease.
Related to positive disintegration, creative doubt, and incrementalism are the epistemological forms, structures, and methods of speculative theology. The diverse elements of Mormonism’s epistemology (its theory of knowledge), lacking synthesis, are scattered [p.4]throughout its doctrine and practices and are meaningful only as they are circumscribed by free agency. The concepts embraced by speculative theology as I see them are reason, experience, authority, intuition, and imagination. In one way or another these structures and methods are products of the mind and conscience.
Reason. Briefly, reason is the mental and/or intellectual processes by which data, facts, information, etc., are organized into a systematic order to provide understanding and meaning. Reason’s method is logic; its faculty, the mind; and its process, thinking. This capacity for rational discrimination and decision-making sets humans apart from others of God’s creatures.
The human faculty of the mind, with its facility to reason, makes free agency meaningful. Through choices humans become moral agents and accountable for their actions. Rational faculties permit us to learn vicariously, and thus we expand our universe considerably beyond our experiential world.
The mind, continually expanding, growing, and developing, is the seat of knowledge. Its station and relationship to the rest of our faculties are demonstrated in these instructions to Joseph Smith’s friend and scribe Oliver Cowdery: “But behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore you shall feel that it is right” (D&C 9, emphasis added).
Beyond this, the mind is the repository of will. The mind is intended to be the power by which emotions and subconscious drives are regulated and kept within the bounds of propriety. Self-control and self-will are properly referred to as mental activities.
Experience. According to Mormon teachings, as intelligences we were all organized spiritually prior to being born physically into mortality. God in organizing or creating us provided the spiritual bodies in which the intelligences reside. As spirit beings under the direction of God, literally our father through spiritual creation, we grew, developed, and fulfilled ourselves until the time appointed for our entrance into mortality. Through our physical creation, our bodies became the tabernacles for our spirits, and we entered mortality by the process we call birth.
Experience is usually defined as the conjunction of perception (physical senses) and reality. Its method is empirical; its faculty, the sense and the mind; and its process, observation. In a more [p.5]formal and structured way, experience translates to experimentation. Out of experimentations and experiences come discoveries of eternal importance. Reason does not destroy faith; it perfects it and makes the physical laws our servants, not our masters. Reason makes possible the command to “subdue the earth” (Gen. 1:28).
Authority. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have authorities in abundance. I do not mean to suggest that we have too many, but there is always a danger of factionalism and favoritism in having so many. This danger is magnified because of the proclivity of many Mormons to rely on church activity and on the insights of others to assuage their doubts.
There is one sense in Mormonism in which authority has a precise meaning. It deals with the delegation of priesthood power from God to men and women and the ecclesiastical function of authority in church order and liturgy. However, in the epistemological definition of authority, Mormonism is fraught with ambiguity and confusion. Speculative theology plays an insightful and meaningful role in helping the individual find his or her way in the maze of competing and conflicting authorities on critical theological issues and questions.
Intuition. Intuition, revelation, and inspiration are unique learning forms, and just as the condition of the mind helps to determine the knowledge gained from experience, so the condition of the conscience helps to determine the knowledge received through intuition. The method of intuition is inspiration and revelation, its faculty is the conscience, and its process is prayer, meditation, and prophecy. By definition, intuition is comprehension and understanding by non-intellectual perception and means. By and large such learning resists empirical verification of the usual sort. The major device by which intuition becomes functional is the conscience, and it appears that the conscience is responsive to both spiritual and physical stimuli. But the conscience also seems to serve as a kind of built-in regulator that provides stability and interharmony. If we ignore the warning signals of our conscience, we place our personalities in jeopardy.
Imagination. The human personality possesses a great variety of feelings and sensitivities. Emotions and imaginations have inspired some of the greatest human efforts in art, literature, philosophy, theology, and music. They have also produced great tragedy [p.6]and human suffering. But this is not sufficient reason to malign fantasy and daydreaming. Positive daydreaming and creative imagining are essential parts of the human personality and should inspire us to make the world a more beautiful and rewarding place to live. These most basic of human qualities will make us “God-like” and “Christ-like.” They brighten, uplift, and inspire creative productivity and awaken the restorative powers of the worth of self and others.
Speculative theology is essential, its substance and form crucial to a progressive lifestyle. It inspires by the questions it raises; it fulfills and rewards by the answers it produces; it makes for a creative and exciting existence; and its consequences reach into the eternities. Speculative theology produces a more dynamic faith and awakens deep within the soul a primal longing for that eternal reunion with Father and Mother whereby we may know all that they know, do all that they do, and be all that they are.