I had a few thoughts in response to a recent article at Times and Seasons called The Atheological Atonement. Dave Banack describes two “mildly surprising conclusions” that I think many Mormon thinkers would likely agree with.
1. The LDS Church affirms a doctrine of the atonement, but not any particular theory of the atonement.
I totally agree with this, though I also agree with his observation that many Mormons do accept Penal Substitution or a form if it (“How many drops of blood were shed for me?”) as their primary mental model. I would argue that D&C 19 makes Penal Substitution much, much harder to escape – the fact of the matter is, according to the D&C, Jesus did have to suffer a physical punishment which we would suffer if we don’t repent. But some very smart Mormon thinkers have attempted to view this scripture in light of other theories. Fine.
But why doesn’t Mormonism have a strong theological model of the Atonement? I can think of two general kinds of reasons. Possible Reason 1 is that the Atonement really is a complete mystery. And I mean mystery in the modern sense (since anciently the word “mystery” meant something that is revealed). As such, as many comments on the Times and Seasons post seemed to indicate, any model of the Atonement is going to be a shadowy idol compared to the real thing. I’ve heard some Orthodox make this argument too, but more on that in a minute. On this view, there is simply no way we could ever understand the Atonement and so we’re free to simply guess and wonder, but we’re better off just using the Atonement rather than try to figure it out. As a result of this mystery, the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants are going to shift inexplicably across many different models, analogies, theologies, and prophetic opinions because the truth is a transcendent sort of triangulation of all those models.
Possible Reason 2 is that Joseph Smith inherited a vague, undisciplined mish-mash of Atonement theories because that was the state of American Protestantism at the time. As a result, the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants are going to shift inexplicably across many different models, analogies, theologies, and prophetic opinions because Joseph never really considered the depths of implications each theory has about the nature of reality and God’s relationship to humans.
The problem here – if you haven’t already noticed – is that it seems very difficult to judge which Possible Reason is right, since they both result in the same data. On to Banack’s second conclusion:
2. Maybe it is just as well that the Church avoids formulating a more detailed theory of the atonement.
Banack’s reasoning is that sometimes when the LDS church tries to officially foray into establishing theology, it produces “questionable results.” As such, if the church leaves questions open to interpretation, it allows us to study the issue and come up with new, interesting, and deep explanations that can be quite edifying. He cites James Faulconer’s reasons for why the church generally stays out of theology:
He gives five reasons we have, in the past, avoided theology: the Church is still young; fideism has become popular among LDS leaders; continuing revelation makes rational theology more challenging; the view that scripture contains a catalogue of implicit propositional truths; and our view that religion is primarily a matter of practice rather than propositional belief. I find encouraging Faulconer’s view that newer and broader approaches to theology (hermeneutic theology, narrative theology, theology in the style of Wittegenstein or Badiou) offer more promise for deepening LDS thought than rational or systematic theology.
This is the part that I don’t understand, because it seems to make a few assumptions about theology that I probably don’t agree with. Why should we be afraid of true theology? If the LDS Prophet revealed some concrete theological truth, shouldn’t we be excited and happy that he did so? Or would we be disappointed that we can’t BS by the campfire about it anymore? One assumption Banack makes seems to be that theological answers (at least, systematic theology as represented by the Christian tradition) are just not very good answers to begin with. If they were, then wouldn’t he be happy to pursue systematic theological answers? I’m also interested in why he thinks that Continental-style theology is somehow better than this – he says it’s “broader.” Personally I find it too vague, constructivist, and subjective to be helpful in day-to-day life. Very few people have the patience and personality to appreciate that type of theology, and thus it seems to operate on the assumption that theology isn’t all that useful to people in their daily lives (except for the elites). But straightforward systematic theology can be grasped by far more people and has real implications on their behavior. So yeah, if you don’t think theology is “real” (or if it’s just an elaborate “Rube Goldberg Machine”) then yeah, let’s bury it in an amorphous cloud of Continental sophistry because it’s not all that useful anyway. That probably isn’t a charitable interpretation, but it’s what pops into my mind.
(I’m not big on Continental philosophy if you can’t tell – especially Wittgenstein)
On the other hand I would suspect that both the Orthodox and the Mormons would suggest that theology is experiential rather than discursive, though they’d say it in their own ways. I think this is one area of wide agreement between the two sides. Though on the other hand I do think Orthodoxy has an emphasis on “right belief,” and would probably say that a correct discursive understanding is the start of theosis. I’m not even sure the Mormon would claim this (though Joseph Smith did, explicitly, in the Lectures on Faith).