Imagine I’ve just been made supreme chancellor of a graduate program in Mormon theology.
Thousands of students throng. We need a syllabus. What’s our first reading assignment?
We’re going to start with Jim Faulconer’s dramatically subtitled essay “Rethinking Theology: The Shadow of the Apocalypse” from Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Maxwell Institute, 2010).
On my reading, Jim’s essay lays out a couple of basic principles for engaging in theology as quasi-academic meta-reflection on Mormonism:
1. Theology should be “apocalyptic.”
Apocalypse does not so much refer to the end of the world . . . as it refers to the moment when the nearness of the kingdom of God is revealed to the believer and the believer’s life is oriented by that kingdom rather than by the world. To hear the gospel preached is to experience a type or shadow of the Apocalypse” (110)
Our theology must be a figure of the Apocalypse, a theology that reveals God himself, even if only as a figure, rather than revealing only our understanding of him. (113)
In an “apocalyptic” theology,
the challenge is not to think another world or to think other than the world. It is not to create a Platonic metaphysics. The challenge is to think our being-in-the-world differently, to think it as directed toward God by his self-revelation in the world. (119)
2. Theology should confess its foolishness before God.
If our theology is to be apocalyptic, it must demonstrate its foolishness before God in some way. (124)
Theology is not only a matter of going beyond learning through testimony and covenant, though it is that. It is also a matter of remaining a fool before God in knowledge. (123)
In particular, theology should be willing to confess that truth, in general, may not be the neat, tidy, and transparently “rational” thing that we would often prefer it to be.
I believe that most of us who do theology or some informal version of it assume that God’s knowledge is a systematic whole, and that he reveals parts of that whole over time, gradually revealing more and more of it. If so, then those who think that way assume that, using the part of the whole that has been revealed so far, they can tentatively speculate as to the systematic whole that stands behind the part. However, as reasonable as that may seem, I think it is mistaken. (115)
For one thing, to claim that our speculations are concerned with an eternal, rational system of truths that God reveals to us over time assumes that knowledge is fundamentally and essentially systematic and rational . . . . But much of twentieth-century philosophy . . . has made that assumption about the character of knowledge dubious, each in different ways. It is questionable whether it makes sense to believe that there is an eternally existing set of systematically related fundamental truths expressed at least in part in our accurate understanding of things. Indeed, I believe that most who have dealt with the question carefully have concluded that the notion is rationally incoherent. But it does not follow from that rejection of an eternal, static realm of truth that is metaphysically prior to or beyond this world that there is neither truth, nor that there is no eternal truth. Indeed, the revealed truth that God is embodied and, so, within the cosmos in some way rather than metaphysically apart from it, suggests that the realm of truth is metaphysically prior to the cosmos within which human beings find themselves. Instead the truth is part of the cosmos, perhaps as its happening. We can reject the Enlightenment formulation of truth (a formulation that continues to use the traditional God as its model even if it sometimes rejects his existence) without rejecting truth itself. (115-117)
3. And, perhaps most importantly for a Mormon thinker, theology should be undertaken as “a kind of prayer” (134).