The Radically Scientific Flavor of the LDS Worldview

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.”[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.”[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.

[1] Ephesians 4:13

[2] History of the Church, 5:215

[3] Article of Faith 9

[4] History of the Church, 5:499

[5] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, pg. 66

[6] Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

6 thoughts on “The Radically Scientific Flavor of the LDS Worldview

  1. Although I agree with the main concepts, I disagree that Joseph Smith adopted a scientific flavor to his work. You are dealing in an idealism of scientific discovery that often is not real. There often are as many creeds in the scientific realm as there are in Christianity.
    I know of many instances where data has been intentionally changed, dismissed, or hidden, in order to promote a scientific theory as fact. Today, many disbelieve Global Warming, simply due to the fact that it has become a creedal concept, where if one says it enough times everyone should believe it. That there has been cheating in many of the studies shows that there is not a real search for truth, but only to establish a certain belief system (true or not).

    There is also a tendency in the LDS Church to lean towards creeds of its own. In the last century apostles fought over whose belief system would win out on being the reigning doctrine of the day. For some to insist that evolution was not real, that blacks were cursed, etc., did not lead us towards greater truth in the Church, but became the sandbox in which many members felt they had no choice but to play.
    Thankfully, we again are moving away from creeds in Mormonism, and back to establishing what is core doctrine, while leaving everything else up for revelatory inquiry.

    In this is perhaps the greatest power of the Church. It can move as needed to address new ideas and concepts, while still holding true to its core. Jesus will always be the Christ. Faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost will always be the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. But discovering new truths, whether from direct revelation or from man-made discovery, will not be a problem for a Church that keeps everything open for discovery.

  2. You make a good point, that the scientific world is not uniformly devoted to the open-minded, unhampered pursuit of truth. There are paradigms and creeds, not doubt. That topic is one I’d like to read more about. What books do you recommed on the subject? In the post I tried to simply highlight the virtuous side of scientific inquiry, as opposed to making a comment about the state of scientific investigation in our contemporary society.

    What are some signs you see that the Church today is moving away from creeds and toward more established doctrine?

  3. Flexibility may sound appealing, but it’s not all fun and games. When you open a crack, liberals tend to turn it into a fissure and then a chasm. Precise and authoritatively defined dogma, I submit, is the best defense against them.

    The Catholic Church didn’t start formulating dogmas and issuing anathemas for fun. You Mormons may need to learn that from experience. : )

    In any event, the proposition that “there is no precise and authoritatively defined dogma” introduces a paradox, in my view. Is that proposition itself a dogma? If so, by whom has it been precisely and authoritatively defined? If it’s not a dogma, then aren’t people free to believe that there is precise and authoritatively defined dogma?

  4. I gonna have to side with the commenters on this one. Just because science is flexible in its own way and the Mormonism is flexible in its own way does not mean that Mormonism is scientific in any way at all.

    Furthermore, I would argue that it is a good thing that Mormonism is not scientific. Scientists would not appreciate us calling their craft “Mormon” in any sense, so why should we want to call Mormonism “scientific” in any sense?

  5. Fantastic post. I loved this:

    How often do we forget that “He is the great iconoclast”? Revelation is His; theology is ours.

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