Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mormon Theological Memory and Sacred Story

In a previous post I mentioned my initial research foray into sources for my PhD bibliography. I have been given some good initial suggestions for threads to follow, including those from Steven L. Olsen. One of his recommendations was the article "The Theology of Memory: Mormon Historical Consciousness," FARMS Review of Books 19, no. 2 (2007). The piece is helpful for a broader understanding of Mormonism for evangelicals in that it attempts to answer why the LDS Church spends a great amount of time and energy in the preservation of its historical records. Olsen answers this with reference to two reasons, the one of most interest to my research touching on "the nature of Latter-day Saint theology." In Olsen's view, "the core religious beliefs of Latter-day Saints derive largely from spiritual experiences and are expressed in narrative terms. That is, Latter-day Saint theology is more experiential than propositional." Further, he argues that this experiential aspect of LDS spirituality and theologizing "seems to partake of the very essence of Latter-day Saint identity." This thinking dovetails with my own observations on the subject which form the core of my dissertation proposal, particularly when Olsen states that LDS "truth claims result more from spiritual experiences than from logical inferences, reasoned abstractions, or other formal philosophical or rational processes."

Later in this article Olsen discusses a key historical and narrative event in LDS history, the First Vision of Joseph Smith where he claimed to receive a visitation from God the Father and Jesus Christ. With his thesis of the significance of history and theological memory in mind, Olsen explains that the First Vision "is both chronologically and logically prior to any particular doctrinal significance that is ascribed to the event." In addition, the First Vision functions with "symbolic significance" that defines "the religious identity of the Latter-day Saints." Over time, in Olsen's view "[i]t has become a spiritual archetype, or model for the identity and behavior of a body of believers." It is thus a "foundational sacred story" which serve as the basis for an important function in the lives of Mormons in that it "provides a spiritual paradigm for individual conversion, resistance to temptation, persistence in prayer, study of the scriptures, and similar processes that govern the religious lives of Latter-day Saints."

I am pleased to discover this first of many gems of research in Mormon sacred narrative that I hope will inform and expand my understanding of Mormonism as my research process moves forward.

1 comment:

Steve Hayes said...

Has anyone ever done a study on the aesthetics of NRMs?

I've often been struck by the similarity between the iconography of 19thh-century US NRMs, such as the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists.

All three strike me as the epitome of kitsch -- I could never worship a God that looked like that. Yet it obviously appeals to some people.