Sunday, August 22, 2010

Experiential Theology vs. Syllogistic Theology

I was thinking of making the title of this post "Narrative Theology vs. Syllogistic Theology" but I found that the phrase "Narrative Theology" is in current use by a small group of theologians so I settled on "Experiential Theology" because it seems to be slightly less used and thus might cause less confusion. I also considered the title, "LDS Theology as Narrative", but while technically the title conveys the correct idea, at first glance it seems to be grammatically incorrect (it's actually not, but I won't split hairs over that) and that might give some people who read this blog a bad case of hives, so I went with the current title. But after writing the title I thought that it might imply that one of the two is better than the other and that we should reject one and embrace the other, but that would be a false dichotomy, so I again thought about changing the title but then I decided to just go with it because by worrying too much over the title I would be expressing a syllogistic approach rather than an experiential approach to the topic, and thus would be going against my whole purpose in writing this post.

So in church today one of the speakers mentioned something that I found to be very interesting. He said that LDS Theology is narrative driven as opposed to driven by logical arguments and prepositions. As he explained it I realized that he had a very good point. What he meant by it being narrative driven is that we focus on the stories or the experiences behind the doctrine rather than focus on fundamental principles, or prepositions, like so many other Christian religions do. He made the distinction between traditional Creedal religion and the way we approach and learn our doctrine in that we do not take logical prepositions and then create a logical argument out of those to form the basis of our beliefs. There were many other points that he made, but I will not cover those here.

As I thought about what he had said the more I realized that he was right. In the Church we use our experiences or the stories that we tell as the basis of the doctrine that we know and understand. For example, when ever we teach about tithing we always use the scripture in Malachi 3:10 that says, "Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it." This scripture is then always followed by the explanation, "If you want to know whether or not the law of tithing is true, you have to try it first, and just pay your tithing, and then you will know that it is true." This approach to determining whether or not blessings can be received by paying your tithing is not based in logical arguments but rather it is based in our own personal experiences. Quite frequently this teaching is combined with a personal experience about how it has worked for the person teaching about tithing. All of this is part of what I am calling Experiential Theology (or Narrative Theology) because the truthfulness or efficacy of the doctrine is not based on a logical syllogism but rather in the experiences of those involved.

The same holds true for other points of doctrine in LDS theology. In terms of our knowledge regarding the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, we do not typically prove it through logical arguments but rather encourage people to read it for themselves and to gain their own "witness" that it is true. We tell them to pray and to have their own spiritual experience to confirm that it is true. When we teach about other things, such as the Word of Wisdom, or the Law of Chastity we encourage people to live those laws so that they may know by their own experience that they are good laws and induce us to happiness. This approach is almost unique in organized Christian Churches because it places more emphasis on our own experiences as the foundation of our beliefs than on some well thought out logical argument, in the style of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Anselm and other christian thinkers.

But what is also unique about the LDS approach is that while we use our own experiences as the foundation of our knowledge we do not reject Syllogistic Theology. As a matter of fact we strongly embrace logical, rational approaches to explain our beliefs, but we do not take the syllogism or even logical prepositions to be the foundation of our religious knowledge. That comes from our own experiences.

Now there are some interesting results for having this approach to our theology. First: No professional clergy. Because we focus on our own experiences rather than a well thought out syllogism there is not so much need to get everything "said correctly". That is, if some one is unable to express an idea clearly and coherently then that is not frowned upon in our church because the important part is the personal experience and not the well stated argument. Churches that rely on a professional clergy are founded on a syllogistic theology because they need to have the teachings "correct" and the way the ensure this is to have a professional clergy that knows the proper things to say and teach so that there are no unclear or possibly false teachings. This does not mean that in the LDS church we are not concerned about "correct" teachings, but rather we are more interested in "correct" personal experiences rather than an orthodox and clear articulation of the doctrine.

Second: How we "prove" things in the Church. This is related to the previous point and I have already covered this before, but we "prove" things in the Church by relating our personal experiences and contributing to the narrative of the doctrine. If someone demands to have something "proven" to them we tell them to try it out in order to "prove" it. This response tends to frustrate some people because they are looking for a logical syllogism and our response is, "Try it out for yourself and gain your own experience." Ultimately we consider the personal experience with the Holy Spirit to be the only valid method of "truly" learning the truthfulness of something.

Third: Compared to other Christian traditions we appear to have a non-existent theology. Some observers say that this is due to the relative young age of the Church, but I think that this has more to do with the fact that our theology is fundamentally different from other traditional Christian theologies. In effect critics look at our theology and because it is fundamentally different they do not see any of the typical hallmarks of a Christian theology, and thus they summarily conclude that we have no theology, when in reality our theology is much more extensive and robust then they could possible imagine.

So those were some of my thoughts on the matter. I may look into this more later on.

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