This is another guest post by Ryan Hermansen.
By Ryan Hermansen.
Really, the title of this post should read, “The Radically Scientific Flavor of (my) LDS Worldview,” since one of the points I intend to make is that, even though there is, broadly speaking, such a thing as “the LDS worldview,” there is not a particularly strong tradition of systematic theology a la John Calvin within Mormonism, thus giving each individual member of the church some leeway to think as they please on a whole host of topics without becoming heretical (even though our Mormon culture sometimes tries to suggest otherwise). And this lack of systematic theology is a curious thing. Why haven’t the Latter-day Saints, beginning with and including Joseph Smith, been big on systematic theology?
If we browse Wikipedia for a definition, ‘systematic theology’ is “a discipline of Christian theology that attempts to formulate an orderly, rational, and coherent account of the Christian faith and beliefs…Inherent to a system of theological thought is that a method is developed, one which can be applied both broadly and particularly.”
Systematic theologies have been developed over the centuries not only in an attempt to nail down the correct understanding of godly revelation and make that understanding rationally communicable, but also to serve as a tool of unification for the people of God. The latter effort has admittedly met with mixed results, as denominations have proliferated despite all efforts to come to “a unity of the faith.” The former effort happens to interest me more at this particular moment. The question becomes the following: can we really codify a correct understanding of godly revelation within any humanly devised framework? Are we not flirting with disaster when we attempt to ossify that which has proven to be quite fluid in nature? About a year before his death, the Prophet Joseph Smith said the following, in reference to a group of non-Mormons with whom he was previously speaking:
I stated that the most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day Saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time.
What we have, it seems, is a fundamental hesitancy built into our worldview that moderates our sometimes strong impulse to codify too much, to tie down too tightly. Yes, we have confidence in the exhilarating, panoramic views of reality brought to bear through Joseph Smith’s prophetic career and in the cornerstones of this panorama: atoning grace, faith in Christ, priesthood covenants, and the ascending staircase of sanctification. However, we stop short of a thoroughgoing systematic theology – and rightly so in my opinion. There is salutary effect in seeing much of our theology as an unfinished project. Steel is useful not just because it is strong, but because it can flex.
And this takes us to the scientific flavor mentioned above. The humble circumspection I perceive in many of the Prophet Joseph’s teachings bears strong resemblance to one of the outstanding virtues inherent in the scientific revolution: the open-ended, iterative framework, where truth is always being approached and never encompassed. Here, standing in bright contrast to all the religious traditions tied to this or that systematic theology, we find the radically scientific flavor of Latter-day Saint Christianity, which holds as one of its foundational tenets that “God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” We are incrementally coming out of obscurity and into the light – both as individual souls and as an institutional church. “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism,” said the Prophet Joseph, “is to accept truth, let it come from whence it may.”
It seems that we must find a way to be both faithful and flexible; to not budge an inch when our foundations are assailed, and yet maintain an effervescent sense of wonder in the face of all we don’t know. Writing in his book A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis said,
My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.
How often do we forget that “He is the great iconoclast”? Revelation is His; theology is ours. And his is much better than ours.
Finally, another reason I think we find ourselves without much of a history of systematic theology is simply because Joseph set quite the opposite tone from the beginning: The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine & Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price together constitute a decisive break from the Reformed Protestant tradition of scriptural analysis via reasoned argument, debate, and careful exegesis. Richard Bushman expressed the uniqueness of Joseph’s writings as follows:
By the standards of systematic theology, all of Joseph’s revelations are undisciplined and oracular, like the Bible itself…The revelations never reply to other texts, give reasons, or make arguments…They stand alone, energetic and illuminating, disorderly. Interpretation involves piecing together the parts into a coherent whole and must be undertaken with no assurance that even believing Mormons will concur.
In what seems like a recipe for chaos, we instead find a corpus of revelations infused with a moving spiritual momentum while at the same time possessing an open-ended, almost scientific, amenability to further light, understanding, and truth. What we have is a high-grade steel – an alloy with exceptional value and exceptional promise.
 Ephesians 4:13
 History of the Church, 5:215
 History of the Church, 5:499
 C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, pg. 66
 Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling