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A Mormon theology manifesto

By Michael De Groote

Mormon Times

Published: Saturday, May 9 2009 12:35 a.m. MDT

PROVO, Utah — The key to Mormon theology, according to Adam S. Miller, is a story about Buddha.Miller, a professor of philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas, was speaking at the third annual Mormon Scholars in the Humanities conference on May 8 at Aspen Grove. He presented a manifesto for how Mormon theology should be approached.That approach is critical — but not in the common sense of picking apart something to find something negative to say. Criticism in the scholarly world usually means attempting to understand or analyzing. Religious criticism doesn't need to be negative in this context, but is shouldn't be trivial either, according to Miller. \"The vast majority of what is called 'criticism,' I think, is anything but critical. Petty, trivial and defensive, it worries away at the inconsequential and plays out as an exercise in self-justification. In magnifying the weaknesses of others, such criticism manages to reflect only the critic's own vanity.\"A theological approach means focusing on the critical matters — the things that are the most important. For Miller, the most important thing is charity, which he defines as a healing response to suffering.To illustrate the difference between the trivial and the critical, Miller told the story of a disciple of Buddha named Malukya. Malukya was frustrated with Buddha. He wanted Buddha to explain whether the world was eternal or not and other deep concepts. He confronted Buddha and demanded answers — or he would abandon his training. Buddha asked Malukya, \"Did I ever say, 'Come train with me and I'll teach you whether the world is eternal or not'?\"Malukya had to admit Buddha made no such promise. Buddha compared Malukya's questions to a man who, after being shot by a poison arrow, refuses to have the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his skin color, his town, the type of bow, type of bowstring, type of arrow and type of arrow head.\"In the meantime the man would be dead.\"Buddha explained, in the story, that the important things were not whether or not the world was eternal, because that knowledge wouldn't change humanity's common condition of birth, aging, death, sadness and suffering.Buddha concluded his defense by saying that his aim was not to answer such questions, but to teach how to end suffering. Malukya left rejoicing.Miller said that Malukya's problem was that he had \"become distracted\" from the \"difficult work of charity.\" He sought refuge, rather, in \"speculative distraction.\" The answers he sought would not give him any opportunity to practice charity.\"Mormon theology must forego smug critique and instead constructively pursue those key Mormon insights that are capable of directly addressing the root causes of human suffering. If not, then the 'critical' approach amounts only to so much 'sounding brass and tinkling cymbals,'\" Miller said. \"Theology is worth only as much charity as it is able to show.\"Miller distinguished theology from work that is historical, doctrinal or devotional. \"Where historical work is concerned with reconstructing past events, doctrinal work with the determination of what is institutionally normative, and devotional work with the expression of personal piety, theology is concerned with charity.\"If theology doesn't address human suffering, if it doesn't address the central human experience of mortality, then, Miller said, it \"is nothing.\"So how does this work?\"For Mormons, reading is a core religious practice,\" Miller said. Scriptures can be approached historically, doctrinally, devotionally or theologically. A person can look for the historical items, the core accepted doctrines, an encounter with the divine or they can perform a theological experiment.Miller explained that a theological approach is like an experiment. It recognizes the text almost like a machine that gives different outputs depending on what is put into it. A theological approach gives freedom to ask hypothetical questions: \"If such and such were the case, then what meaningful pattern would the text produce in response?\"For examples, Miller referred to the Mormon Theology Seminar's conference held at BYU last year. Several scholars explored Alma 32 by posing hypothetical questions: Alma 32 was explored as a reflection of Adam and Eve's experience in the Garden of Eden. It was explored in light of Joseph Smith's revelations about the eternal nature of love. It was read as a parallel to Isaiah 55. Each \"if\" produced an illuminating \"then.\"The goal, according to Miller, is to find a text's \"latent images of Christ.\" \"However, it is essential to remember that, because it is fundamentally hypothetical, theology is always tentative and nonbinding.\" It doesn't necessarily have to match exactly with the author's original intention. It only needs to \"show charity\" and be grounded in the words of the text.Miller said this is a \"call to action\" to lay aside the \"pettiness of criticism\" and embrace a work that is \"genuinely critical.\" It must follow the path that addresses and heals suffering.\"Otherwise,\" Miller said, referring to Buddha's warning to Malukya, \"even if all our other questions find answers, we will, in the meanwhile, have died.\"


E-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com

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