A few years back there was an interesting book called Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies. It was edited by Donald Musser and David Paulsen and was a fantastic book. With a few exceptions it managed to transcend the traditional battles between mainstream Christian theologians and Mormons — avoiding some of the combativeness especially found in Mormon apologetic writing. While I think apologetics often gets an unfair rap it’s also true that building on common ground produces more light rather than focusing on misunderstanding and differences.
What I loved best about the book was how it brought many different types of theology into focus. Many were types of theology I had very little experience with such as liberation theology or feminist theology. Even when I had grave differences with these other views I still found myself noticing new things about my own tradition I had never noticed. That, to me, is the ideal function of a great book.
It’s been five years since Mormonism in Dialogue came out. I think it fair to say that the landscape of writing on Mormon theology was transformed by that book. Now there is a new book in honor of the editor of Mormonism in Dialogue: David Paulsen. This new book takes up some of the same drives that the earlier book did. As such I think it is a fitting tribute to Dr. Paulsen and his transformative work on Mormon Theology. The book is Mormonism at the Crossroads of Philosophy and Theology.
Often these “essays in honor” type of books are very hit or miss. You get a few essays that probably could have been published in a wide range of settings that are excellent. Then you get the ones that seem quickly put together. This volume in contrast is nearly uniformly excellent. What I especially enjoyed was how many notable names contributed to the book. People such as Paul Owen, Francis Beckwith and others. Names perhaps more familiar to regular Mormon readers like Jim Faulconer, Brian Birch, Dennis Potter, Blake Ostler or Jim McLachlan are found herein. Many of the topics focus on how Mormonism has engaged with other Christians, especially Evangelicals. As well they outline possible places where more common ground or at least a space for respect can be made. Readers need not agree with those essays. (I often don’t) Yet they point to one of the greatest contributions Dr. Paulsen has made. Charitable, respectful and thoughtful engagement on an intellectual playing field.
What I especially like about the essays is how many take up themes from Crossroads and move it forward. For instance one of the most exciting if problematic sections of Crossroads was on liberation theology. It’s hard to read an outline of liberation theology and not notice strong parallels with sections of the Book of Mormon. Yet liberation theology, with its frequent Marxist overtones, also seems most at odds with how many Mormons think about theology. While I enjoyed the continuation of these themes in this new book I feel like many are still taking the initial steps rather than (yet) going very far with them. If I had a single criticism it would be that perhaps some of the authors should have taken familiarity with the books Paulsen wrote and gone somewhat farther than they did. That is too many assume an unfamiliarity with the topics that perhaps undermines slightly what they offer for Mormon theology.
It is hard for me to make those criticisms too harshly though. Editors and authors often have a difficult time deciding on the type of audience they write for. Further I think it fair to assume not everyone reading this book necessarily has read the other volumes and essays Dr. Paulsen has prepared. Taken on its own terms this book is nearly uniformly excellent. Which, once again, is not to say I agree with the conclusions or arguments of each paper.
The other weakness is that if you are familiar with a lot of Mormon theological writing (often sadly found in little read journals or on the internet) then some of the papers will be very familiar. Blake Ostler’s “Kalam Infinity Arguments and the Infinite Past” has been around for a while. It is an excellent argument about why the common Mormon view of an infinite past does not involve logical problems. Likewise many may have read Dennis Potter’s “Lehi’s Opposition Theodicy” before. It was very influential on my own thought when I read a version many years ago. However by making such papers available to a much wider audience the book serves a needed role. One hopes that many other perhaps too rarely read papers will become published in the future.
Without going through all of the papers in turn let me just say that this volume will be a great contribution to Mormon theology. It is indeed a solid offering to honor Dr. Paulsen.
Edit: I could have sworn I’d published the above weeks ago. My apologies that somehow it never made it on the website. I’ve been swamped once again but I actually do hope to go paper by paper over the next weeks with this book, Joe Spencer’s recent volume of theology, and return to Adam Miller’s as well.