Friday, January 05, 2007

The Mormon Theology Seminar

This experimental seminar in Mormon theology is a product of the fact that I am now officially middle-aged.

I turned thirty this last year, completed my doctoral work in philosophy, started a job teaching philosophy, and welcomed our third child. Amid the pleasant chaos, my thoughts turned to the question of what on earth I ought to do with my professional life (at least the part of that professional life that is interested in Mormon theology). A few weeks before my birthday, while reading a book about the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, I had an epiphany.

I was reading about Lacan's way of grouping psychoanalysts into temporary and tightly focused study groups of 5-6 people (cartels or seminars) organized around answering a particular question (theoretical or practical) and aimed at producing a consensus report that could then be distributed to the larger body of psychoanalysts as a basis for further discussion and innovations in practice.

No stranger to megalomania, the possibility of doing something similar with Mormon theology struck me like a bolt of lightning.

Here's what I saw.

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.

The seminar's motto could be summarized in the following way: Mormon theology as common, progressive, and cumulative.

'Common' meaning that we're looking to overcome the isolation and idiosyncrasy of Mormon theology by finding a way to engage in the work as a shared project that produces some consensus. 'Progressive' meaning that we're looking to ask relatively narrow questions that are at least provisionally answerable/decidable so that some kind of general progress can be made in the field. And 'Cumulative' meaning that we're looking for a way to preserve and build on the answers and solutions already proposed (both within a given reading group/seminar on a weekly basis and, over time, between seminars).

Now such a thing (at least on a large scale) may well be impossible - and it may certainly even turn out to be undesirable - but the aim of this experiment is to find out.

When Jim Faulconer suggested to me the possibility of collecting a number of essays devoted to relatively sophisticated Mormon readings of Abraham, I counter-suggested that the project he had in mind might serve very nicely as a kind of trial balloon for the idea sketched above. We settled on a broad topic, came up with a list of potential participants, and here we are.

Now we'll see what happens next.


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