“That idea has not yet been resolved within your heart and is tormenting it.” 
One of my inaugural posts for JI was a spiritual autobiographical account of entering the world of the academic study of religion. And I feel as though a continuation of that autobiography is important and necessary, if only for my own sake.
I am grateful to have a voice on this blog because I realize my voice may be a bit unconventional. I am not a historian. I am simply a Mormon with broad-ranging scholarly interests. Yet my voice can be heard here because the history of Mormonism, and of any religion, has always been the history of belief and of believers’ lives in a world sometimes inhospitable to their beliefs.
My first two semesters of divinity school have been ones of great darkness and sadness, as well as ones of great light and growth. Upon arriving, I quickly learned that my theological rearing had been dismal, and that I lacked an adequate vocabulary to have discussions across the Mormon/non-Mormon divide (a divide that was more real than I had imagined!). What surprised me the most was that what I had perceived to be minor theological differences between Mormonism and other denominations actually proved to be chasmal and irreconcilable.
Quickly I became theologically homeless. I questioned it all. And somewhere in my first semester, God seemingly departed without so much as a swish of a heavenly robe. Or, I should say, my faith in God dwindled until any audible swish could be dismissed as nothing more than a piece of paper rattling to the floor. I have been told that this is what is meant by the phrase “the dark night of the soul.” Desperate and faithless prayers I flung at the sky fluttered back down from my cold ceiling. Often when I was in an attitude of prayer, words would fail to form at all.
I realize that my experience is not unique. My response to heavy theological study—an urge to quail, to crumble, to jump one theological ship for another—reputedly happens to many Mormons and other people of faith who undergo these pressures. And everyone experiences the disappearance, or at least the unavoidable mystery, of God sometimes. I can better imagine what must have been the horror of Joseph Smith—a man who considered his theophany “a fact” —at apparently being deserted at points in his prophetic career. God’s hand must have seemed to be so clearly before him at times, guiding, directing, orchestrating. Perhaps his deeper acquaintance with divinity thrust him into even greater darkness after such bright visionary shards pierced his eyes and mind.
For me, Joseph Smith’s journey is the archetypal journey of a person of faith. The earliest stage of his faith-journey (study, reflect, pray, repeat) has served as a model for Mormons in discovering the truth of the existence of God and the truth of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a faith-journey that happens all over the world, every day, and not just in academic departments of religion in Ivy League schools.
We are not all Joseph Smith, and neither are we meant to be. We are not all founders of religions or bearers of prophetic burdens (although I might argue that we are the latter). But the truth is that the perils of the academic study of religion are not any different than the perils of faith, a fact that Mormons often fail to recognize in the practice of theological education. I now appreciate the zeal with which so many people cling to truths and doctrines for the sake of safety from an experience of homelessness or of being at sea. Likewise, I now understand why certain theological principles are true and must be taught correctly despite accompanying fuzziness.
I have asked myself repeatedly why this experience has been so difficult. What would have made it easier? How could my early religious education have been improved to avert some rather harrowing moments? My wise roommate, a woman with a fine, courageous, inquiring mind, seems to consider theological issues with a critical yet faithful eye. She discusses the radical nature of evil and the seriousness of sin, and perceives that many of our fellow div school students are spiritually undernourished (several concepts I often overlook in my eagerness to be religiously egalitarian). I envy her because so often, in considering theological questions, I defer to positions of authority rather than reasoning out what I think, rather than putting my theology in conversation with other theologies and seeing how it holds up. Or, I patch together an ideology that suits me but that is unlike any real theology. The real questions of theology are sometimes too troubling to confront.
In some ways, the three questions above undermine the very real purpose of this experience, which has been personally tailored (heavenward glance) to reveal gross errors in my theological thinking and practice. The experience could not have been easier because without difficulty I would have never learned to believe in Christ and to believe Christ, which has always given me much intellectual and spiritual unrest. If my experience thus far were one of sailing rather than travailing, I might have completely missed the inescapable fact that the only way to seek knowledge is by study and by faith. And faith, for me, involves a great deal of prayer, belief, and intellectual leaping, and it must be backed by reason or else it lacks any valuable substance.
At the same time, the questions above are illuminating and contain some interesting possibilities in Mormon theological pedagogy. I know that it is not always practical, nor desirable, to apply academic methodologies in a Sunday School setting. But I do think our pedagogical imperative must be a rigorous theological education that is presented as such. And such a theological education can take place in seminary and Institute classes, and in religious education classes at church-run universities. Students must be taught that acquiring faith is a lifelong process that is no less perilous than Joseph Smith’s encounters with religious and ideological opposition or with God himself and that myriad questions are not only inevitable but essential to building a strong theological foundation.
All Mormon believers are required to be historians of their own religion, even if they are only amateur ones. Similarly, all Mormon believers are required to be theologians. According to Karl Barth,
Every Christian—in however primitive and rudimentary a way—can and must be a theologian, and that no matter how primitive and rudimentary he can and must be a good theologian, having a true vision of the One in whom he believes, having true thoughts concerning Him and finding the right words to express those thoughts. 
One of the mantras of my systematic theology class last semester was, “Theology is talk about God, not talk about talk about God.” In seminary and Institute classrooms, we must of course talk about God in context of Mormonism but we must also place that talk in context of other Christian and non-Christian religions. This dialogic relationship is not a novel idea; Mormon theological discourse is moving in this direction.
However, I urgently encourage 1) that we acknowledge, learn, and understand the myriad and interlacing forms of God-talk that much of the world’s populace use or are familiar with; 2) that we know theological history, the history of God; 3) and finally that we ultimately make God the true content of our discourse. Why is it important that God have a body according to Mormon theology? What do we make of human deification? How do we explain such concepts to Christians who consider such theological concepts to be heretical? God, and particularly his salvific relationship to his children through Jesus Christ, should be the subject of all our theological discussions (in typical Barthian fashion. Jesus Christ is always the subject of the theological discourse at hand, be it ecclesiology or eschatology, etc.).
Finally, the reported metaphor of Joseph Smith being a “rough stone rolling” down a mountain can offer a helpful way to consider Mormon theological education and faith-formation. Rather than suggesting students approach the bulwark of theological knowledge that is Mormonism and accept what they learn wholesale, teachers should perhaps follow an approach that acknowledges the piecemeal nature of building faith that is a continual process of construction and deconstruction, of perpetual shaping through collisions. Life-long students of Mormonism are a bunch of rough stones rolling together down the mountain of faith in an avalanche that will one day fill the whole earth. Each stone is in a different stage of being smoothed and polished into shafts “in the quiver of the Almighty”, and this must be acknowledged in our theological education as well. Mormon theological education needs to be undertaken with a more individualistic approach that attends to the spiritual and intellectual needs of each student.
I have no doubt that students young and old would rise to the challenge of thinking critically about their own theology and would relish an expanded exploration of theology in general. It would increase interest in students who are bored or on the verge of losing their faith and perhaps teach them that theological education involves a lifetime of rolling and polishing accompanied by absurdity, darkness, clarity, and brilliant flashes of illumination.
 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. David McDuff (New York: Penguin, 2003), 95.
 Joseph Smith—History 1:24.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1, 765.
 Joseph Smith, qtd. in Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi, 8.<–>