Mormon Theology Seminar

How I spend my Sunday nights, and what it means for the future of Mormon thought.

I used to watch “Grey’s Anatomy.” But now I have a newborn Sunday night routine: I put the kids to bed, I straighten the house, and I curl up on the couch with ice cream and laptop for an evening of 100-proof philosophy. A few months ago I was invited to participate in an experimental e-seminar, brainchild of Adam Miller, the subject of which would be Mormon readings of Abraham, and the members of which would include an eclectic group of Mormon scholars, senior and junior, university-affiliated and independent (including my distinguished T&S colleague Jim Faulconer). I accepted the invitation, because who actually watches that show anymore anyway, and also because I was seized by Adam’s vision of the project:

I saw dozens (and hundreds) of these seminar groups, loosely organized around an extra-instutional hub, convening for sixth months at a time and reporting over the course of the next fifty or a hundred years about the practice and foundations of Mormon theology.

I saw the accumulation of insight and the cross-fertilization of discourses and disciplines in the production of consensus reports about relatively narrow and (at least provisionally) answerable questions.

I saw books and whole series of books published containing these reports and the individual contributions that they spawn.

I saw online groups and summer theology seminars with senior scholars.

I saw an immense archive of disciplined theological discussion, organized and searchable according to topic and discipline, that could form the foundation for the emergence of Mormon theology as a unique discourse with its own proper methods and unique subject matter.

I saw Mormon theology, rounding its two-hundredth birthday, growing-up. Lacan on the brain, I penciled the name: the Mormon Theology Seminar.

To make poetry of extra-institutional hubs and consensus reports and organized searchable archives, to discover scholarship and an ecstatic futurism in audacious flagrante—what soul would not soar?

But even Phaedrus’ chariot must ascend first from earth. Adam and Jim devised a sort of syllabus for the project: we would use a blog platform for our seminar room (with comments available only to participants); readings would move us through Genesis and PoGP Abraham, Kierkegaard and Derrida; weekly discussion leaders would frame the conversation in posts to which the rest of us would respond. Four key questions would steer our inquiry:

1. If Abraham is the paradigm of fidelity to God, then what are the essential elements of this faithful relationship?
2. What can Abraham’s relationship with God tell us about the nature and possibility of theology?
3. How do our family relationships shape our fidelity to God and, potentially, the kind of theology we pursue?
4. Finally, in light of the above, what is unique about a Mormon understanding of Abraham?

We started up in January; just now we’re finishing Genesis. And from my perspective, the genesis is good. Discussion has been stimulating and fairly robust; we do, I think, share a sense of common purpose, and I believe we may yet answer a question or two. For me, an independent scholar (that most exalted species), the seminar’s intellectual discipline, imperfectly mustered, to be sure, and lively theoretical play have filled a gap that I’ve never managed to fill on my own in the nearly three years I’ve been out of the seminar room.

We’ve encountered many of the same challenges that bedevil any voluntary, virtual enterprise: it’s difficult to find the time to contribute among one’s obligatory tasks; without a face-to-face connection it’s been difficult to get to know all the participants well; we’ve struggled a bit to combine our various vocabularies and areas of expertise into a common intellectual task. But these challenges are eminently superable.

If you’re so inclined, I invite you to spend some time in our archives—either to follow the progress of our particular inquiry, or to observe the workings of our experiment. As it happens, several of our members, including Jim and Adam, are also participating in this year’s SMPT conference today and tomorrow. If you’re around and interested in participating in or sponsoring future seminars, by all means track down Adam; believe me, he’d like nothing more than to be cornered in an intense discussion of typology and semiotics.

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15 comments for “Mormon Theology Seminar

  1. March 23, 2007 at 9:09 am

    Rosalynde, thanks very much for this rundown on the seminar! I stumbled across it not too long ago; I can’t remember how. Perhaps it was mentioned in an e-mail somewhere, or has been linked to on our or somebody’s sidebar. Anyway, I don’t remember any sort of announcement about it beginning, but it’s wonderful to discover it. What a feast of thoughtful discussion! It appears I’ve missed out on all the Genesis discussions, but I hope to be able to follow closely as you get into the Book of Abraham, and then the more philosophical texts afterwards.

    Has there been any discussion amongst the group about what to try for the second half of the year?

  2. Adam Greenwood
    March 23, 2007 at 9:53 am

    God be with you, all. Good luck.

  3. Kevin Barney
    March 23, 2007 at 11:00 am

    It’s great to see you again, Rosalynde. And thanks for this report on what looks like a fascinating e-experiment.

  4. Margaret Young
    March 23, 2007 at 11:09 am

    What a great trade-in! This wonderful seminar for Grey’s Anatomy! It sounds like a perfect Sabbath activity, one that would give you much to think about during the week. And a newborn as well! You are blessed.

  5. March 23, 2007 at 11:24 am

    Not to sound uncongratulatory, but 100 proof is only half power. You probably are thinking of 200 proof or one hundred percent.

    As a major fan of Kierkegaard (how can I not be, we’re both Danish), I would love to make such philosophical connections, especially between the PoGP and his writings. Think of subjectivity in regards to Abraham’s experiences!

  6. Rosalynde Welch
    March 23, 2007 at 11:47 am

    Well darn it, njensen, I flubbed it. I was punning a little on “proof”—but it’s not so funny if I don’t get my facts straight! Thanks for the, er, reproof.

    Thanks all for your interest. Margaret, just to be clear, I don’t actually have a new baby—just a new Sunday night ritual (or did you get that?). My littlest one, Mara, will be one on Sunday, in fact. But I am very blessed, my lowbrow television habits notwithstanding.

    Russell, no, to my knowledge there are no plans for the second half of the year yet. Any suggestions?

  7. Margaret Young
    March 23, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    I did misread you, Rosalynde-but that’s because I read too quickly. Then again, a one-year-old is pretty close to a newborn.
    I have loved bonding with my grandchildren, and really enjoy watching my daughter figure out how to balance her intellectual needs with her maternal instincts and duties. I am so proud of her.
    You are already familiar with my sister-in-law’s blog called “Design Mom.” My daughter Kaila, like Gabby “Design Mom”, has started her own blog and included a book group with it. Right now, we’re reading Sidney Poitier’s _The Measure of a Man_ (his memoir). I never really considered what example I was setting for my children as I continued my education and wrote books (and I worried often that I had the balance wrong), but I am glad she is continuing to blossom in so many ways. It’ll be interesting to see how my other kids work out their own balancing acts.
    I am certain that your parents are thrilled with the life you lead and the ways you inspire others with your well-considered thoughts and insights.

  8. Janet
    March 23, 2007 at 1:53 pm

    Yay, Rosalynde is back!!!!

    I’m busy frenetically baby-proofing my house or I’d offer substantive commentary. For the moment though, let me just say “hurrah, hurrah, Ros is back in the house!”

  9. Rosalynde Welch
    March 23, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    Margaret, what a kind thing to say. Thank you so much.

    Janet, what’s substantive commentary to your joy? Daffodils and forsythia are on in St Louis, all to celebrate you and yours.

  10. Mark N.
    March 23, 2007 at 5:47 pm

    1. If Abraham is the paradigm of fidelity to God, then what are the essential elements of this faithful relationship?

    Polygamy. I’m almost positive it’s gotta be polygamy.

    Go thou and do likewise.

  11. mami
    March 23, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    You are truly one of my favorite bloggers. I love to read every word you type! I’m so glad to see you’ve posted.

  12. Jeff
    March 23, 2007 at 11:13 pm

    Has the elite intellectual group to which you refer ever discussed the perils of over-intellectualizing the plain and precious truths of Christ’s gospel?

  13. Rosalynde Welch
    March 24, 2007 at 10:45 am

    Mami, thank you. Thursday night my three-year-old said, “Mom, this is the BEST dinner you’ve ever made”—and the two of you have got me walking on sunshine all weekend. (Alas, neither motherhood nor blogging is very wholesome for the ego in the long term. Fortunately one can take a break from blogging. I haven’t figured out what to do about motherhood yet.)

    Jeff, because I am a member of an elite intellectual group I can assure you that Kiesler’s theorem of absolute asinescence (or, perhaps more precisely, Morton’s expansion of Kiesler’s late kinesthological turn) suggests that absorptive readings of signition discourse are not only unwarranted but very possibly a Chalmerian concision. So no worries.

    (In truth, we have not discussed the perils of over-intellectualizing the gospel, not least because I don’t know what it would mean to over-intellectualize the gospel. We have had self-critical discussions on a number of questions, including the nature of the authority on which our readings are warranted—-and we haven’t yet answered all of these questions to my satisfaction, at least. So we do try to be self-skeptical.)

  14. DKL
    March 24, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    You made the right move. Gray’s Anatomy takes itself way too seriously. It’s pretty funny to watch with the volume turned down — so many close ups of faces expressing some shade of consternation. And Grey’s Anatomy has been moved anyway. Now they show a slow moving and insipid show called “Brothers and Sisters,” whose only virtue is that it killed off Tom Skerritt in the first episode, well, that plus it confirms everyone’s long-standing suspicion that we don’t all love Sally Field, because, as we now can prove thanks to “Brothers and Sisters,” she’s a no-talent hack whose worst career move was leaving Burt Reynolds.

    Weighing that scriptural curriculum against Desperate Housewives — that’s an entirely different matter. But I’m the wrong person to ask about curricula. I was never much the schoolboy, and I’m something of a cretan anyway.

  15. DKL
    March 24, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    Since you brought up the topic of Father Abraham, it’s worth noting that this authentic 19th century wood carving is a pretty decent feminist variation on those scriptural stories where God tells Father Abraham that he wants Isaac killed as a sacrifice to him. (That, plus Euripides’ Electra.)

    I’ve always thought that it was a good thing that Abraham didn’t just send Isaac off to some Yahwist priest to get sacrificed. That priest may not have been in-tune enough to discover that God had changed his mind. Then, poof — there goes the chosen people. (There’s an argument against outsourcing in there somewhere…)

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