Conference organizer Ken West couldn’t believe what was happening that Thursday night, March 27, 2003. Though it was supposed to be the start of the history-making conference on Mormonism at the Yale Divinity School, things weren’t going very smoothly. For one thing, his wife was supposed to be running the check-in table and instead she was at the hospital with their young son who had injured himself after jumping off a bed and landing on the floor headfirst. Without her experience in running such things, the conference check-in was somewhat chaotic. For another, the notes he had prepared for his opening remarks before the plenary session had been accidentally left in the family’s apartment and he was locked out! What else could possibly go wrong, he wondered.
Fortunately from this point on, the conference entitled “God, Humanity and Revelation: Perspectives from Mormon Philosophy and History” ran quite smoothly with no other major problems, excepting the need for overflow rooms. Nearly 300 individuals were able to check in over the course of the conference and Ken was still able to officially open the event on that Thursday evening with some impromptu remarks. In addition, all of the presenters, respondents, students, and laypersons maintained an open and respectful dialogue with no obvious contention. (For those wondering about the health of Ken’s son, he’s made a complete recovery.)
All but two of the 13 sessions were held in the stately Marquand Chapel of the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle on Yale’s historic campus. With its beautiful fluted pillars and handsome Colonial woodwork, the setting transported those present back to the days of Joseph Smith in the 1800’s. The American Prophet might very well have preached and expounded on the restored gospel in such a setting. It seemed as if Brother Joseph’s spirit of inquisitiveness and truth seeking was present as each of the scholars stood at the elevated pulpit to present their papers. Following are some necessarily very brief highlights from each of the 13 sessions.
Plenary Session: Richard L. Bushman, “Joseph Smith’s Visions”. Bushman proposed that while Latter-day saints do not have an extensive systematic theology, they do have numerous stories from the past that teach doctrine. He believes that we are still living those stories today and creating new ones. For Bushman, our stories teach us that we are part of a larger picture in God’s plan. Ann Taves, the respondent, suggested that if Mormons have no systematic theology, perhaps they have what could be called a “narrative theology”. During the Q&A session, it was suggested that we can and do have both forms of theology, not just one.
Session 1: James E. Faulconer, “Why a Mormon Won’t Drink Coffee but Might Drink Coke: The Atheological Character of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”. Faulconer continued Bushman’s line of thinking. Given the beliefs in continuing revelation, an open canon, and practice (ordinances) being more important than doctrine, it’s not surprising that Latter-day saints don’t have a systematic theology. Nicholas Wolterstorff, responded by describing a possible church classification scheme based on its theological structure and concluded that the LDS Church is not as distinctive as Faulconer argued. He sees the Church as being “part of the crowd” along with other churches that don’t have a systematic theology.
Session 2: Philip Barlow, “The Bible as Key to Mormonism’s Genetic Code”. Barlow pointed out how the King James translation of the Holy Bible played a tremendous role in Joseph Smith’s mission as demonstrated by the Book of Mormon, the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, his sermons, and revelations received by the Prophet. For Barlow, one can only understand Joseph Smith by understanding the Bible’s influence on his work. In her response, Laurie Maffly-Kipp noted that 19th century Americans experimented on and used the Bible in many ways. She suggested that Joseph Smith was not especially unique in how he made use of the Bible, except perhaps by virtue of the sheer quantity of his output.
Session 3: Terryl Givens, “The Book of Mormon and the Future(s) of Mormonism”. For Givens, both Christianity and Mormonism contain scandals that are irreducible. The Book of Mormon is the scandal of Mormonism and the incarnation of God in the being of Jesus Christ is the scandal of Christianity. Givens argues that the Book of Mormon’s contents make no sense if one can’t accept its supernatural origins. For him, it’s the story of the book, not the story in the book that makes it unique. Carl Mosser in his response argued that regardless of whether the book’s origins are taken seriously, scholars should still emphasize its contents over its origins, if they use time and money to study it at all.
Session 4: Kathleen Flake, “Joseph Smith’s Narrative Theology”. Flake discussed the differences and similarities of translation compared to interpretation. Using examples from the works of Joseph Smith, she showed how he “cracks open the narrative of the Bible” and rewrites the past in order to create a new understanding of the future. Stephen Marini applauded Flake’s paper as an excellent example of the quality of academic study that is needed in Mormon studies.
Session 5: Panel Discussion: Plural Marriage and the Mormon Family. Panelists Lawrence Foster, Lowell “Ben” Bennion, Kathryn Daynes, and Martha Bradley discussed this complex topic in Mormon history and doctrine using sermons, personal journal entries, and research studies regarding past and present practices.
Session 6: Truman G. Madsen, “The Eternal Nature of Persons”. Madsen showed how Mormon views on human beings are a confluence of normative Judaism and first century Christianity. He described LDS doctrine regarding autonomy, creation, the soul, the Fall of Adam, human potential, and redemption. He concluded by saying that “the universe is a machine for the making of gods”. In his response, David H. Kelsey questioned many of Madsen’s conclusions from an orthodox Christian perspective. For example, he wondered how humans as created beings could worship a creator who is of the same species and avoid idolatry.
Session 7: Robert L. Millet, “The Redemption of Fallen Humanity: A Book of Mormon Perspective”. Using the Book of Mormon as a foundation, Millet responded to the conclusion that things in this world aren’t the way they’re supposed to be since the Fall of Adam. He emphasized that: 1) all mankind is lost and fallen; 2) we inherit a fallen nature through conception; 3) one may be faithful and still be buffeted by the influences of the world; 4) little children are innocent by the atonement, not by nature; and 5) the natural man is an enemy to God and all righteousness. He concluded that while we cannot save ourselves, redemption is possible through the atonement. Respondent Douglas Davies offered a typology of churches based on their views of redemption and concluded that Mormonism shows characteristics of both types depending on the age of the member. He also emphasized the importance of the meanings of words, such as merit (a “bad word”), love (a “good word”), and the cross (a neglected word in Mormonism). He said that Mormons know more about Gethsemane than do other Christians who emphasize the cross.
Session 8: David L. Paulsen and Blake Ostler, “God, our Father”.
Using their own reflections on divine revelation and the appearances of the Father in both old and new scripture, Paulsen and Ostler outlined their views of the nature and character of Heavenly Father from an LDS perspective. Marilyn Adams responded to these views from an orthodox Christian perspective.
Session 9: Daniel C. Peterson, “Mormonism and the Trinity”. Peterson presented his case that Mormon doctrine about the Godhead is fully in line with Social Trinitarianism and Monotheisim. While Mormons do reject ontological explanations of the Godhead’s oneness, we are still to be considered as Trinitarian Christians. Stephen T. Davis in turn presented the case from an orthodox Christian perspective that Mormons are not Trinitarians.
Session 10: Jennifer Lane, “Divinity and Agency: An Approach to Latter-day Saint Christology”. In her paper, Lane emphasized that both Christ and humans are spiritually begotten sons and daughters of God the Father. She also taught that divinity comes from agency, that Christ was divine because he chose to be such. Christopher Beeley, responding from an orthodox Christian perspective, noted both differences and similarities with Mormon doctrine regarding Christology.
Session 11: Panel Discussion: “The Future of Mormon (Theological) Studies”. Panelists Dennis Potter, Jill Mulvay Derr, Paul Owen, and Richard Sherlock shared their ideas, dreams, and recommendations as to what they each would like to see happen in forthcoming research on Mormonism.
Session 12: Jan Shipps, “The Location of Mormon Theology on the American Landscape”. Long a student of Mormon history and culture, Shipps presented a three-layered model that attempted to summarize the history of Mormonism: 1) apostolic layer, 2) Abrahamic layer, and 3) plural marriage level. Grant Underwood applauded Shipps’ model and suggested using an organic model (e.g., a butterfly at different stages) rather than an inorganic one. He also noted the difficulty of defining Mormonism given its very particular and personal nature.
By the end of the conference, Ken West was able to conclude with satisfaction that his original goals of increasing Christian-Mormon dialogue had been accomplished. He also noted that the future for such conferences looks bright with a wealthy (unidentified) LDS member pledging his financial support for similar endeavors. Now it was time for West to return to his already busy life of a young family, graduate school, and a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.