Q&A with Joseph Spencer, author of For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope May 23 2014
Q: Latter-day Saints from both academic and non-academic backgrounds tend to be suspicious of formal theology for a variety of reasons. How do you understand theology, and why do you think it belongs in Mormon studies?
I take it as given that theology—good theology anyway—is philosophically informed reflection on what it means to live a life of faith. For my part, that’s another way of saying that to do theology is, essentially, to repent and to invite others to repent along with you. I do theology because I hope that careful reflection will allow me to see where we tend to hold grace or life at a distance. To do theology well is to begin to see where we’ve positioned idols as barriers to keep God away from us. That should leave us fully prepared to break down the idols we’ve constructed. On the other hand, to do theology poorly is to construct elaborate temples around those very idols theological work might help us to abandon.
It’s worth saying that the kinds of things that theology gives its attention to aren’t exclusively religious. Hope, for instance, is hardly a uniquely religious phenomenon, nor is consecration—though the latter isn’t likely to be called “consecration” outside of a religious setting. To do theology well is to reflect on what it means to be alive, to be a human being, to be in a world with others. That’s why I think theology not only belongs but is essential to Mormon studies. Too much of Mormon studies speaks only to Latter-day Saints or only to already-interested historians. If we want Mormonism to speak with a universal voice, we’ll have to begin asking how it gives us to understand the nature of life. From where I’m standing, much of what has been produced in the field of Mormon studies is just a prelude to what we really want to talk about.
Q: Some of your most influential philosopher-theologian colleagues (I’m thinking specifically about Jim Faulconer and Adam Miller) have embraced and modeled Mormon theology as a kind of anti-theology. How do you see your work alongside theirs? Alongside the work of older generation Mormon theologians like Truman Madsen or even Roberts and the Pratts?
There’s no question that I’m closely allied with thinkers like Jim Faulconer and Adam Miller, at the very least because we’re all interested in contemporary French thought in addition to our commitment to theological reflection on Mormonism. I think, though, that we all understand what might be called anti-theology or atheology in different but related ways. What unites us, perhaps, is our commitment to the idea that theory can’t be divorced from practice, or even the idea that theory is somehow predicated on practice. What differentiates us is what we privilege or emphasize when we think about the sort of practice on which theory is predicated. Both Jim and Adam give an important place to scripture (Jim more consistently than Adam), but I think what distinguishes me from them—if anything—is the particularly heavy emphasis I give to scripture. I find I have a hard time writing about anything else.
It’s a little embarrassing to try to think about what my work looks like alongside thinkers like Madsen or Roberts or the Pratts. If I have a consistent complaint about most of what’s been done in the history of Mormon theological reflection, it’s that so little of it begins from exegetically responsible readings of scripture. The exception there might be Orson Pratt. I’ve been struck just in the past few months at how much of his thinking might be taken to be a reflection of his commitment to the Book of Mormon. Even his infamous theological resistance to Brigham Young might be seen to have grown out of his careful study of the Book of Mormon. There may be a methodological parallel between my own work and Orson’s, then. I don’t see much of myself in most of the tradition, though, and the conclusions I come to in light of scripture don’t look much like Orson’s either. If there’s a figure in the tradition whose work mine echoes, it’s probably Hugh Nibley—someone we desperately need to begin reading as a theologian and a thinker, rather than as a historian or an apologist.
Q: There has been a recent uptick of LDS devotional works focused on hope. Why do you think that is, and how do you see this book in conversation with their work?
I never discuss in For Zion why I began to reflect on hope, but it began with a determinate worry. It’s no surprise to hear that Latter-day Saints tend to divide into “conservative” and “liberal” camps. But I was struck some six or seven years ago by the kind of talk used by these two groups to criticize each other. Conservative Mormons often criticize liberal Mormons for what they view as their lack of faith, while liberal Mormons often criticize conservative Mormons for what they view as their lack of charity. I was struck at about the same time by the tone of despair that often accompanies such criticisms, from whichever side. It was fascinating to me that a certain loss of hope accompanies the divorce between faith and love, whether it’s begun from the one side or the other. It was this curious situation that set me thinking about hope—about how it might be what allows faith and love to work together fruitfully, and about how it might be the most universally absent virtue in contemporary Mormonism.
When I began reflecting on these questions, I looked through the available devotional literature and was startled to find only one book on hope. About the time I began serious work on For Zion, however, a handful of devotional titles on hope suddenly appeared, and a few more have been published since. As I read these works, however, I’m startled at how different my motivations have apparently been from theirs. If I were to take a guess, I’d say that they have their roots largely in the cultural shift Mormonism is experiencing, with the emergence of the most serious generation gap the Church has seen in decades. Almost universally, such devotional works seem to take hope and faith as equivalent, and their account of hope/faith is like that of “conservative” Mormonism when it criticizes “liberal” Mormonism: faith/hope is presented as a kind of courageous obedience. Obviously, I think there’s more to the story than just that. I worry that the devotional literature only puts off the real problem.
Q: To produce an account of hope, you look at the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul is often regarded as formidable by Latter-day Saints, and there are occasional attempts to make him more accessible by simplifying his message. In For Zion, by contrast, you read Paul’s writings as deeply complex. What’s behind that approach? Is it a product of your general embrace and celebration of scriptural complexity, or does this specific project benefit from such a reading?
My approach to Paul is probably more reflective of my general embrace and celebration of scriptural complexity than anything else. I think we can provide simpler or more accessible accounts of the things going on in scripture, but I don’t think we can do so without having done a great deal more work on scripture. It’s only the genuine expert who can put together a summary that doesn’t do horrible injustice to what needs summarizing, and I don’t think we’ve yet had any experts on scripture in the history of the Restoration. It’s only in the past couple of decades that we’ve had more than one or two trained bible scholars, but even they wouldn’t claim that their training has made them experts on more than a few themes or a few passages. We’ve produced a remarkable number of historians over the past sixty or seventy years, but it’s only been in the past couple of years that we’ve had the documentary resources necessary for solid study of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants or the texts making up the Pearl of Great Price. And we’re still largely without devoted scholars of the Book of Mormon—that book that forms the keystone of our religion.
Summarily put, I don’t think we’re remotely prepared to make any of our scriptures more accessible or to produce “made easier” volumes yet. The task at present is to come face to face with the historical, literary, and theological complexity of scripture, and to see if we can’t make some preliminary sense of what these texts have to say to us. If Paul is complex—and I think it’s perfectly clear that he is—then I want him to remain complex until we’ve begun to sort out the implications of his writings. And I think the same goes for the rest of scripture as well. Of course, there’s an important place in the lived religion of Mormonism for devotional reading, for being inspired by scripture regardless of its immense complexity. I don’t at all mean to deny that. But I think scholars do a disservice to everyday readers of scripture when they obscure complexity, since they thereby make it far more difficult to hear any real call to repentance in scripture.
Q: In the second half of the book, you set out the law of consecration as the real hope for Mormonism. Is there any particular reason you feel that it’s important now to discuss consecration?
Consecration has been at the heart of the Church since its inception, and it receives pretty regular attention from Latter-day Saint authors. I think, nonetheless, that there are at least two reasons it needs careful attention right now. Perhaps the most obvious and important of these is the publication of the Joseph Smith Papers. It has become possible to trace the development of consecration in Mormonism’s earliest years in a remarkable way. This availability of resources can be coupled with the undeniable renaissance of academic Mormon history since the turn of the millennium. The great works on consecration were written by Leonard Arrington (and a few others) thirty to fifty years ago. It is time to update and supplement that work. I’ve tried to draw on the best of what’s available to me to do something along those lines. Mostly, I’ve tried to clarify a set of concerns I often hear expressed about the relationship between the early history of consecration and the canonical text of the Doctrine and Covenants.
The other major reason to revisit consecration right now is because of the deeply political climate through which the American Church is passing. The various sorts of political commitments with which Latter-day Saints align themselves often lead to problematic attitudes about consecration. I won’t review these attitudes here since I give attention to them in For Zion, but I think it’s this tendency to reduce consecration to some kind of economic or political program, and some kind of economic or political program that happens to look a lot like one’s own economic or political commitments, that suggests that we’d do well to read the relevant revelatory texts much, much more carefully. I don’t pretend to be innocent of political biases myself, of course, but I think that the kind of theological approach I’ve taken to the text—asking about what’s meant by “use” in the notion of stewardship—can skirt some of the overdetermination that usually colors readings of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Q: At several points in your discussions of consecration, you identify parallels between the scriptural account of consecration and certain practices and beliefs espoused in the Catholic monastic tradition. That’s likely to surprise most Latter-day Saints. What do Mormons have to learn from monasticism?
I was quite surprised by this finding as I worked through this project. I suspect I’ll continue thinking about this connection for a long time. Latter-day Saints have often identified with reformers and innovators in the pre-Mormon Christian tradition. I’m beginning to wonder whether we shouldn’t pay close attention to the Franciscan monastic tradition alongside folks like Wycliffe and Tyndale, Luther and Wesley. I’ve noted occasional expressions of appreciation for separatist movements in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—the Waldensians, for instance. (Such expressions of appreciation can be found as early as the lifetime of Joseph Smith.) It’s perhaps time we collectively recognized that Saint Francis was a part of that same general climate, even if he and his followers didn’t break so overtly with the Roman Church. As I think I show in For Zion, the Franciscans may have been the first in a very long time in Christianity to have raised questions that have been central to Mormonism from its beginnings.
Of course, for Latter-day Saints to begin to appreciate monasticism, it’ll be necessary for them to overcome a few common misconceptions. It’s not at all uncommon to hear Latter-day Saints equate the cenobitic and the anchorite traditions—that is, monks and hermits. The monastery was a matter of living together, while the anchorite was someone who retreated alone from the world. It won’t do to criticize monasticism because it fails to mesh with the Mormon sense of community, or because it supposedly embraces some otherworldly retreat from real life. Further, Latter-day Saints will need to get over the idea that monasticism was primarily about privation. I’ve already mentioned that what monks sought in the monastery was a certain form of living together. That has to be seen as the chief aim of the monastic way of life. A certain fraternity or sorority, which Latter-day Saints have sought from early on, was the ideal, and certain sorts of privation followed from that ideal.
Q: On the back cover of your book, Mark Ashurst-McGee compares your work to that of Hugh Nibley, and you yourself made that comparison above. You’ve also dedicated For Zion to Nibley’s memory. How do you understand the ongoing relevance of Nibley’s work?
I suspect many will see my debt to Hugh Nibley’s work as being primarily a question of theme. I think that’s a mistake. What Nibley left us was first and foremost was a method, and that’s what I hope I’ve inherited from him—not only in For Zion, but in all of my work. Nibley was above all a theologian, as Stuart Parker’s forthcoming book, History through Seer Stones, will help to make clear. Nibley produced over the course of his career a theological dispensationalism that deserves to be studied for its theoretical power, and for the way it draws on important themes both implicit and explicit in Mormon scripture. He was neither a parallelomaniacal conservative forcing resistant historical data to match current practices and policies, nor a blasé liberal obscuring the complexities of free market capitalism to push a countercultural agenda. In light of what I said above about the way that hope might play a mediating role between faith and love, I might say that Nibley was deeply hopeful.
Frankly, I think the general distaste for Nibley that seems to have emerged over the past couple of decades—some of it, unfortunately, during the last years of Nibley’s life—has more to do with the fact that we aren’t yet equal to the task of reading Nibley than it has to do with anything particularly lacking in Nibley’s own work. It’s certainly true that he drew on texts and traditions in ways that don’t fit with today’s academic methods, and it’s certainly true that he oversimplified Mormon history to present a unified account of what he thought needed our attention. But it’s also true that what we’re working on today will be problematic and passé in another generation, as it’s true that we oversimplify Mormon history to present a unified account of what we think needs our attention. We have far more to learn from Nibley than we think we do. We’re not likely to see another such mind in Mormonism for centuries.
Q: How does your vision of a more fully consecrated LDS membership (and Church) differ from Nibley’s?
I understand Nate Oman is gathering essays on Nibley’s Approaching Zion for a published collection. I think he’d be better at answering this kind of question than I would, if he’d be willing to wade through my theological musings. For my part, I wonder if I can answer it adequately. I suppose I would say that I don’t see Nibley getting quite to the heart of the question of consecration. The ship of his thought runs aground on the reef of markets and capitalism, but I think a still deeper and more central question needs addressing: What does it mean to use something without owning it? And the key to answering that question lies in a scriptural passage about which I don’t think Nibley ever said anything substantial: 1 Corinthians 7:29–31, Paul’s discussion of living “as though not.”
Of course, I think it’s possible to give Nibley a more charitable reading. Perhaps it was not that he wrongly felt that the central question was markets and capitalism, but that the Saints more generally use markets and capitalism as excuses to dodge consecration. Perhaps Nibley saw that, and he tried to problematize that move, and rightly. And perhaps it’s possible to interpret Nibley’s work on education and learning as a kind of indirect investigation of the Pauline idea of living “as though not.” Perhaps it’s possible to see Nibley as having reproduced the Pauline idea through a reinvestigation of what it means to consecrate one’s mind. Obviously, it’d take me a while to explain either of these possible reinterpretations of Nibley in anything like convincing detail, but I’d like to be clear that Nibley and I may prove to be closer in certain ways than I’ve been thinking we are.
Q: A clichéd but still important question, I think: How did writing this book change you, your ideas, your commitments?
I wonder what I’ll say in response to this sort of question in a decade or two. For the moment, I feel as if my work on For Zion has focused the central concern of my theological work. My first book, An Other Testament, deals with the theme of the Abrahamic covenant in the Book of Mormon. For Zion keeps its eye trained on the covenantal theme, albeit more consistently in the writings of Paul and the revelations of the Restoration than in the Book of Mormon (although I do dedicate a chapter to the Book of Mormon!). My work on this book has thus helped to focus me all the more consistently on things Abrahamic. At the heart of consecration, whether in Paul or in Joseph Smith, is the complicated relationship between Israel and the gentiles—that same theme to which Jesus Christ gave his almost exclusive attention in his visit to the New World. I’m more eager than ever to investigate this theme throughout both biblical and uniquely Mormon scripture. How are we to understand the Abrahamic dimension of our faith?
At a more practical level, this book has changed my devotional life. I was surprised, actually, to find that the Doctrine and Covenants presents a more or less systematically consistent conception of consecration. I didn’t anticipate that. I knew going into the project that I wouldn’t find a revelation repealing the law of consecration—as is sometimes claimed regarding, say, the revelation on tithing (D&C 119)—but I didn’t expect to find something quite as coherent as I did find. I was also surprised to see how much more theologically compelling the revised text of the revelation on consecration turned out to be. I suppose I expected the original to be more consistent or more forceful. My work convinced me that what we have in the current version of Doctrine and Covenants 42 is the law of consecration to be lived right here and right now. That realization has clarified the life of devotion for me. I’d like to hope that I’ve become more consecrated in the course of my work on this book.