While looking through the bookshelves of a close relative, I discovered a rather significant library of old Mormon books. Most of these books were published from around 1900-1950. As one who loves to read about all things Mormon related, I was the proverbial “kid in a candy shop.” One book that jumped out at me was “A Rational Theology” by John A. Widstoe. The full text of the book can be found here.
I’d like to do a series of posts pulling interesting gems from this book and contrasting them with our modern conceptions in the church. Some of this has been done by Matt W. over at New Cool Thang. You can find his various posts here, here, here, and here. I’d like to build on this analysis, and further examine the rational theology Widstoe tries to build up. In this first post, however, I’d like to contrast the type of scholarship that led to such books with the scholarship in the church today.
The Trajectories of Mormon Scholarship
“A Rational Theology” was written during what seems to be the heyday of Mormon intellectual thought. Over at Boap.org, there’s a great post that gives an outline of the time and shows two main schools of intellectual thought that were being developed at the time. The first school of thought, represented by James E. Talmage and Widstoe, attempts to build a Mormon theology from basic principles, coupled with the Bible. The second school of thought, characterized by B.H. Roberts, relied more heavily on the records of Joseph Smith, and tried to systematize Joseph’s theology, and defend his claims, including The Book of Mormon.
In part due to his relationship with then President Joseph F. Smith, Talmage’s school of thought won out and the “rational” theology became the face of the church’s efforts, including Widstoe’s “A Rational Theology” as the new Sunday School manual. But Roberts’ work was to live on in part thanks to his work on the history of the church. Since then, various influential individuals have augmented these approaches to the church’s theology. Subsequent President Joseph Fielding Smith took the Talmage approach to the extreme, favoring a very literal interpretation, and applying the Bible to many facets of life. Henry Eyring arguably favored a more rigorous scientific approach to knowledge, all while easily (for him) resolving conflict between science and religion, and maintaining his faith in Mormonism. John L. Sorenson dove into the archaeology in Latin America to bolster claims about the historicity of The Book of Mormon.
However, it might well be asserted that Hugh Nibley started (or at least popularized) the apologist movement within Mormonism. Attempts up to this point by Talmage, Widstoe, and the like were to build up a theology from scratch, using a few basic principles, and relying much less on the historicity of The Book of Mormon, or even Joseph Smith’s teachings. Nibley’s approach was a reach back in time to the days of Roberts to yank the goal of systematizing Joseph’s work into the late 20th century. Nibley studied everything from Hebrew, to Egyptology, to Islam, to early Christian history. Modern apologists (seem to me) to be more along the vein of Nibley, and they continue to find success, funding, and support from the church both officially and unofficially.
Scientists and Apologists
I’m interested in the contrast between the Talmage/Widstoe method, and the current apologist method as inspired by Roberts, and most recently, Nibley. Both methods are an attempt at an intellectual justification for Mormonism (or at least parts of it). Talmage/Widstoe addressed Mormon theology as a whole, relying little on Joseph’s cosmology, idealistically asserting that, in time, the LDS Church would embrace all truth. Roberts/Nibley became defenders of Joseph’s claims, charting a rational walk through the apparent irrationality of The Book of Mormon, priesthood, revelations, etc. However, even so, for those who have tried to tie Joseph’s cosmology together, the task is daunting. Contradictions appear, and Joseph himself was learning line upon line, sometimes later ideas casting confusion on what previous claims were intended to mean.
The Talmage/Widstoe method appears to be more insulated from the truth claims of the church, relying more completely on logical reasoning, and small assertions to take us to the next reasonable step. Moreover, the works of these two individuals are very academic, citing hundreds of books, research, and other well verified material. This perhaps gives their points of view more credibility.
Current apologists attempt to apply logical thinking and reasoning to their (Joseph’s or the church’s) claims, but admittedly, they are doing most of the work themselves (it’s not a mystery why most apologist papers on the historicity of The Book of Mormon reference Sorenson’s work). There is much less scholarship on Mormonism outside of the church, whereas Talmage/Widstoe could build on basic theological principles, hundreds of years of philosophical thought, as well as hundreds of years of research on the Bible and its manuscripts.
When I look around at the current Church landscape, it appears that the attempt at rationally building a theology from scratch has all but gone away. I don’t see any new books at Deseret Book that attempt to describe the Gospel in this way, and indeed the church does not produce manuals that aspire to such a lofty goal. On the other hand, I do see plenty of apologist books, articles, and institutions dedicated to defending Joseph’s claims, The Book of Mormon, The Pearl of Great Price, Joseph’s revelations, etc. In fact, we even saw a talk in general conference in October that had a familiar apologist ring to it.
So what think ye? Are the rational theologians in Mormonism dead? Are apologists the new rational theologians, or do they have a different goal in mind? Is a rational theology realizable, and should we try to find it, or should we accept things purely on faith? Or should we seek for both? And where do we draw the line? In all fairness I have to give credit to Blake Ostler who absolutely attempts to provide a “rational theology” in the context of Mormonism. Although his work is not endorsed by the Church, or sold at Deseret Book.