The reader may have noticed a recent explosion of discussion springing from BYU’s Maxwell Institute’s publication of a new volume of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. A particular focus of discussion has been an essay by Benjamin E. Park, “The Book of Mormon and Early America’s Political and Intellectual Tradition,” which reviews two books relating the Book of Mormon to American history.
The online discussion has often been exasperatingly hard to follow (jumping back and forth from various blogs to various facebook pages, etc.), and sometimes just plain vexing, dispiriting, even unseemly as the ratio of light to heat has shrunk. Still, having subjected myself to considerable vexation in order to attempt to track this discussion and locate serious contributions that might really matter, I am happy to report that, while cooler heads may not exactly have “prevailed,” serious minds and good hearts have at least made their presence felt and have elevated the discussion to a point where some significant philosophical issues have come into focus.
I hope to contribute here to a distillation of these philosophical issues. I believe these issues are very important for Mormon scholars and thinkers (Meridian Expand’s intended audience) as we seek to pursue scholarship and simply to think carefully from a standpoint faithful to the Restoration. There are real personal and professional hazards to navigate as we honor eternal truth and at the same time share intellectual pursuits with others with their own priorities.
The philosophical questions I take up here are distinct from, but have become enmeshed within, a controversy surrounding major changes at BYU’s Maxwell Institute (formerly FARMS). This is an important (if, again, vexing and somewhat dispiriting) controversy, but I will not address it directly. My aim is rather to explore a fundamental question that continues to divide even the cooler heads in this discussion, the reasonable and moderate voices that, happily, agree on much that is important.
What reasonable voices agree on is this: there is room in the study of Mormon things for both (1) scholarship that presupposes and often defends Mormon exceptionalism, that is, scholarship that openly assents to the peculiar truth claims of the Latter-day Saints and often provides “apologetics” on behalf of those claims; and (2) scholarship that “brackets” or sets aside or is simply silent about such claims, in order to engage a “broader” audience uninterested in such claims and in fact liable to be put off by them. In a word, and to use a short-hand that risks being emotionally charged but whose convenience cannot be denied: there are those LDS scholars who mainly practice “apologetic” scholarship, and those who mainly practice “mainstream academic” scholarship, and reasonable people of each type recognizes the legitimacy of the other. Since the names are familiar to anyone who knows what I am talking about, let them be named: on the one hand, Daniel Peterson, who has raised critical questions about Benjamin Park’s review, agrees that a “Mormon Studies” that engages non-Mormon, even “secular” scholarship on Mormon things can be good for Mormon; while, on the other, Terryl Givens and David Holland, who have defended Park’s goals, though not necessarily his phrasing, agree (unlike some voices at the new Maxwell Institute) that “Mormon Apologetics” is a useful and intellectually respectable enterprise.
It is always good news when reasonable people whom others take to be on opposite “sides” agree, and I do not wish to spoil this agreement. Indeed I have no interest in spoiling it, since I sympathize and in a way identify with both sides, even though or because I am neither an accomplished apologist nor a Mormon Studies scholar, but just a moral-political philosopher with a vital interest in understanding Mormon things. But even though I share this agreement, I have to observe that it rests on philosophically shaky ground. Thus, in order to promote an eventual more solid concord, I must first take the risk of exposing a fault line that I think still divides reasonable apologists from reasonable Mormon Studies scholars.
To get to the heart of the matter, we will first leap over Mr. Park’s review and the criticisms and defenses of it, and proceed directly to his statement at Times and Seasons (12/15/14), where the author had a chance to explain himself after taking into account the questions and criticisms his review essay had provoked.
Park’s review had seemed to many to indicate that he did not believe in, or at least was not willing to defend, the Book of Mormon’s own account of its ancient origins. Here he addresses those concerns directly: “I believe in the Book of Mormon, both its powerful spiritual message and its historical claims.” That seems to settle that. And he continues: “It is, in part, because of that belief that I hope to see academic engagement with the Book of Mormon expanded.” What will interest us here is precisely the relation between the belief Park shares with faithful Mormons everywhere in the Book’s spiritual message as well as its (I would say inseparably connected) historical claims and his desire to “expand” the academic engagement on this book.
What is interesting is that this very expansion seems to depend upon a setting aside of the very claims that Park says “in part” motivate his interest in the expansion. The “laudable” expansion of Book of Mormon Studies is made possible by certain scholars’ setting aside the discussion that “continued to circle around the nature of Joseph Smith’s authorship, a question which, while important, has only a limited audience.” Now, while Park has no objection to those earlier, less “expansive” discussions, he notes that they “fail to explain what made the Book of Mormon such a potent artifact in antebellum America.” Park does not explain why the question of miraculous authorship should be considered less expansive than that of its antebellum influence, nor even whether it makes sense to sever these questions. What seems to be decisive for Park is what might “be of greater interest to historians of the nineteenth-century, including those that are otherwise uninterested in Mormonism and perhaps even religion in general.”
What is not clear is why it is more expansive, intellectually exciting, or even intellectually rigorous to attend to 19th century influence, or perhaps more generally to historical context, than to inquire into authorship. What is clear is that some people we should consider very important are interested in the former and not in the latter. Apparently it detracts nothing from the importance of these people that they are uninterested not only in Mormonism but even maybe in religion itself. So the people we should consider most important for determining the meaning of intellectual “expansion” are those who are not interested in religion, that is, in such questions as the meaning (if any) of human existence and of the cosmos, but instead in 19th-century American history.
To Park it seems self-evidently justifiable to turn away from interest in narrowly “religious” questions in order to participate in the excitement over “historical” questions. He praises the authors under review for seeing that “the Book of Mormon has potential to address many historical issues and engage multiple academic fields,” thus moving beyond concerns “of primary interest to those in Mormon circles.” Park wants to pay due respect to “an internal, predominantly Mormon audience,” to questions of vital importance to Mormons,” but clearly he sees more value in moving beyond “the typically narrow circles of Mormon studies,” – a phrase that does not seem to me to represent a significant shift from the one he now says he regrets, namely, the original reference to “the parochial boundaries of Mormon-centric discussions.”
Let me pause here to clarify the question I am raising. I do not at all object to the suggestion that there can be narrowness in an intra-Mormon discussion, or even in a discussion that focusses somewhat narrowly on certain distinctive Mormon claims. We can all benefit from engaging unaccustomed conversations. My question is, rather, like Peter’s: to whom then shall we go? What interlocutors should we seek in trying to expand our minds to more fully appreciate, as Ben says, “the Book’s power and promise?” Benjamin Park’s answer to Mormon narrowness is a turn towards a majority or critical mass of a certain group of historians, a group that is interested in “history” as opposed to Mormonism or even religion in general. Why exactly the conversation with historians uninterested in religion ought to be considered a “broader scholarly conversation” than that involving people, including Mormons, interested in truths that might guide our lives, even change our lives, is far from obvious. I suppose “broader” here expresses more a certain quantitative than a qualitative judgment: there are more historians who will talk with us if we talk a certain way, and set aside questions they have set aside. (No matter that there are more people interested in the meaning of life than in 19th-century cultural influences—and not only the legendary High Priest Group Leader from Parowan.) I am simply asking, is this “breadth” worth the cost of such setting aside? Note that I am questioning, not so much Mr. Park’s readiness to distance himself provisionally from a certain Mormon conversation, but rather the nature of the alternative he embraces as more “exciting” and “broader,” that is, a historical approach or method that consists in, or that at least results in, setting aside the profound human concerns (such as are expressed in religion) that have always moved people and, I would venture, made “history,” in order to study “history” considered as detached from these concerns. Interest in religion was likely fundamental in the lives of Joseph Smith and others who made 19-century American history, but for the historians who excite Mr. Park and promise intellectual expansion, well, not so much.
Turning now briefly to the review in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies that sparked the latest wave of discussion of “Mormon Studies,” we see that it is thoroughly informed by a rhetoric that promises an exciting “breadth” as an alternative to a “narrow” or “parochial” past. Of course every reasonable person will prefer the broad to the narrow. But our question is just what it means to be “broad” where the study of the Restoration is concerned.
Park’s answer is not at first easy to track. His first example of narrowness or of the “parochial” is that of academic Mormon Studies that have focused on Mormon things: Mormon approaches to scripture and to the Book of Mormon in particular, or Joseph Smith’s “religious genius.” Park recommends taking a cue from Mormon and Moroni themselves by placing “the narrative’s importance on a much broader scale—demographically, geographically, and chronologically,” (167) as opposed, it is said, to the more “familial and tribal” perspective of “the Nephite record.” (167 f.n. 1)So here “broader” means something like “addressed to the salvation of all mankind,” which seems a fair understanding of breadth. But then Park turns immediately to touting the two books under review for “using the Book of Mormon as a crucial text in their broader narrative of American intellectual and social history during the early republic”; these are the “larger historiographical concerns” (168) that can take us from the parochial fixation on narrowly Mormon things. Now I can see how both a concern for the salvation of all mankind and an interest in early American history can be seen as “broader” in one sense or another than the more focused academic study of Mormonism, but the reader is left to wonder just what kind of “breadth” the reviewer is finally recommending.
Brother Park does not delay in giving his answer, though, and it seems to have little to do with the salvation of all humankind. In fact, we see that “breadth” will require that some “chop away at Mormonism’s distinct message” concerning salvation, in order to add another kind of “significance to the particulars of Mormonism’s revelatory claims.” (168) Here the move to “breadth” is a move to a certain historical context, a move from revelation to history: it is “broader” to see the Mormon prophet “as the climax of a profound cultural tradition” than it is to take seriously his claim to be a prophet (and not just a literary “prophet” like, say, Emerson or Blake).
Indeed, approaching the Book of Mormon as a way to examine an American problem, rather than merely a Mormon problem, makes the text much more relevant to students of American religious and intellectual history. (171)
To be broader is to go from prophecy to History, and thus to embrace “the important lesson that the Book of Mormon is best seen as one of many examples that embody the same cultural strains and that its importance for American intellectual historians is best seen as part of a tapestry of scriptural voices that speak to a culture’s anxieties, hopes, and fears.” (173; my emphasis) Benjamin Park thus seems to accept that what is best for “American intellectual historians” is what should now count as “broad” and therefore as best, simply.
To Park’s credit, he goes on to note, in a friendly critique of Shalev’s book, that there are “elements found within the Book of Mormon” that “dissent [sic]” (173) from 19th century American cultural trends. But the purpose of this critique is not to point beyond the historian’s framework of cultural context, but rather to enlarge that context beyond “the chronological narratives and cultural compartmentalization invoked by historians of American religion,” to invite a more “nuanced and complex” understanding of the way “religious innovation ebbs and flows … [as it] relates to cultural evolution…” Thus Benjamin Park praises “the broad narratives and sophisticated analysis” of the two works under review, but seems to see these “new vistas” as opening up onto a still broader perspective (174).
What is this still greater breadth? Of course it remains to be explored, and Park is not to be faulted for not specifying just what the “real work of contextualization and interpretation” (175) that the future seems to promise will look like. What does seem clear is that the work of the “interpretation” of prophetic claims will remain the historian’s work of “contextualization.” To understand religion is to understand the particular history, the cultural context that produces it. It is not clear that this is what Mormon and Moroni had in mind, but this is, it seems, what “breadth” must mean for us today, at least for us academics, in our cultural and intellectual context. And while some who are excited by the new vistas of historical-cultural-contextual explanation are no doubt very sincere in their tolerance of old-fashioned apologetics, it surely must be considered hopelessly naïve, or at least a little out of step with the progress of contextualization, to study Mormonism or any religion with a view to something as “narrow” as, say, the salvation of the human family.
I by no means assume that Benjamin Park or others excited about the new vistas are not also open to the possibility of some saving Truth, but certainly they judge best to separate any such interest from the properly intellectual and academic task of historical and cultural explanation. In defending Park’s work, one of the authors reviewed, David Holland, of Harvard University’s Divinity School, was moved in the midst of the online controversy to momentarily set aside this separation between religious and academic understanding in order to provide a “clarifying statement” on Dan Peterson’s “Sic et Non” blog concerning his book:
I wrote that book because I am interested in the endless human yearning for God’s voice, a hunger that has a history and a texture that I find intellectually compelling and emotionally moving. I wrote it because I wanted to understand how the human family of God, my siblings–slave prophets, elite intellectuals, Shakers and Saints–have sought that voice. My task was to document the rich story of the searching, not to evaluate the quality of particular results. Both as a historian, and as a person who has clung to the Book of Mormon through the darkest nights of my soul and had it bring me safely home, I believe the Restoration to be utterly exceptional. I did not, however, want my conviction that one of the answers was exceptional to distract the reader from my central message, that the question was anything but. … I believe there were plates. I believe Nephi was a real person. I believe Alma was a real person. I believe Moroni was a real person. I have committed my life to and rested my heavenly hope on this faith. This has served me well; the Book has enlarged my soul, enlightened my understanding, and it is delicious to me.
This moving religious testimony of a prominent historian of religion takes us a step further in assessing the relationship between religious truth and historical explanation. Brother Holland shares the exceptional belief of Mormons that the Book of Mormon is what it says it is, but his task as a historian is to “document … the searching” and “not to evaluate the quality of particular results.” He has chosen to write in such a way as to not allow the “exceptional” answers, which he shares with non-academic Mormons, to “distract the reader from [his] central message,” that is, the central message of his book, which is that the basic questions, the fundamental searching, the “endless human yearning for God’s voice” are anything but exceptional. Holland recognizes of course that this seeking “has a history and a texture,” but he sees it as characterizing “the human family of God.”
In his interest in a universal human seeking David Holland’s perspective points to a breadth beyond the widening circles of contextualization that form Ben Park’s vistas. And a philosopher can certainly appreciate this interest in the inexhaustible forms of the human search for the divine, for whatever answers we think we already possess can be fully appreciated — even, arguably, really understood — and ever-renewed, only in the light of our continued exploration of the fundamental human questions. This suggests a breadth of horizon for “Mormon Studies” that goes well beyond contextualization in the American 19th or any other century. So my only question for Brother Holland would concern the effects of the neat separation between questions and answers, seeking and finding. To favor any “answers” would certainly “distract,” indeed alienate many academic readers, and Holland has done well to reach a larger academic audience by means of his compartmentalization. I do something analogous in my philosophical work, for example, largely setting aside or disguising what may be distinctively Mormon questions or intimations in exploring the porous boundaries between reason and revelation. But here we are concerned especially with historians, and I wonder whether the historians David Holland is addressing with the minimum of “distraction” by reference to the possibility of actual answers are not left, like Benjamin Park, rather comfortable with the process of historical contextualization, safely separated, not only from specific Mormon answers, but from the deeper human questions themselves.
Another notable cool head who has entered the debate to support (while mildly chastening) Mr. Park is Terryl Givens:
One of the consequences of the growth of the academic study of Mormonism is that the Book of Mormon is a subject of non-religious interest for the first time. Sustained exposure to this sacred text, even by those not predisposed to put Moroni 10 to the test, must in general be considered a good thing by the faithful. Considering the reception and meaning of the Book of Mormon in a 19th century historical context expands the conversation and this exposure, without requiring a denial of its ancient origins or divine provenance. It is in that sense that I construed Park’s praise for an escape from parochial and exceptionalist frameworks. (I would have preferred the word transcendence to escape, but these are quibbles). I think that my reading is supported by his praise for making “the text much more relevant” to scholars and students.
If anyone doubted the possibility of expanding the study of Mormonism and of the Book of Mormon in particular in such a way as to reach the “non-religious” without denying the distinctive truth-claims of Mormonism, then we have the splendid example of Terryl Givens himself to assuage any doubts. Brother Givens has stretched our minds and at the same time enlarged our souls with his studies of the meaning of Mormonism within the broadest spiritual and intellectual contexts. And I am inclined to agree with his judgment that, in a way, to coin a phrase, “any publicity is good publicity” where the Book of Mormon is concerned. I, like Terryl, am in favor of a strategy that increases “sustained exposure” to this remarkable text, whether by focusing on “19th century historical context” or by other such scholarly gambits. I mean only to point out that there can be some cost to making the text “more relevant” to a general scholarly community, because “relevance” always appears in a context of priorities and assumptions. And Benjamin Park’s identification of “breadth” with historical contextualization as separated from any question of Truth is I think representative of the assumptions of the scholarly community into which Givens welcomes the “expansion.” In this sense, such an expansion requires at least a provisional narrowing, not only of intellectual scope but also of audience – since the same historical bracketing that attracts some readers will leave others (those more naively interested in Truth) on the outside looking in on the discussion. I am not saying that such a provisional, methodological contraction can never serve a good purpose; I am only saying that there are risks involved and that the costs must be counted.
Some of the costs of this academic broadening by means of intellectual narrowing can be seen in early attempts by the New Maxwell Institute to articulate its New Mission. The first volume of the Institute’s Mormon Studies Review (suitably numbered Volume 1, so as to clearly indicate the rupture with the Review’s Old Regime) wrestles with the problem of an officially LDS journal engaging non-LDS scholars on their own terrain.
In his Introduction to this new journal, the Editor acknowledges what is problematic in the procedure of bracketing out one’s own religious beliefs, and promises only to provide a kind of clearing house of scholarly work relating to Mormonism. Such a characterization of the Review’s editorial policy seems successfully to sidestep the hard religious and intellectual issues. The move beyond a firmly LDS standpoint is clear, however, in the editor’s commitment to becoming “less parochial” and to repudiating the “navel-gazing questions and answers that resonate with Latter-day Saints only.” To make this step “across boundaries” will require a “multiplex subjectivity… a messier commingling of one’s intellectual and religious commitments” in which the very question “what is Mormon?” is held open. The only principle that can be taken as normative from the outset in this new enterprise is the idea of “friendship … a very Mormon ideal indeed.”
The gesture of friendship across religious and philosophical boundaries is lovely, but the question remains of the character of this friendship, or of the conception of the activity to be shared. Just what common purpose, or at least common activity, is supposed to bring these Mormon and non-Mormon (and often non-religious) friends together? This question is very much at stake in a roundtable on “The State of Mormon Studies” published in this inaugural volume.
Two of the six participants in the roundtable propose a “strong pluralist” conception of the project of Mormon Studies. Daniel Peterson argues against indifference to the question of religious truth or falsity, and thus for the continuing role of apologetics, including “negative apologetics,” or the task of answering critics. Kristine Haglund, for her part, doubts the notion of a “clean space” defined only by a commitment to “scholarly excellence” and free of commitments defined by faith or academic ambitions, and she argues against checking religious beliefs at the door of Mormon studies. She does, however, appeal to some shared and presumably unbiased “rigorous standards of evidence and argument” (which Peterson certainly embraces as warmly as she, to be sure) and finally, reaches out, in a way that perhaps anticipates David Holland’s emphasis on shared spiritual seeking, for some emerging common language of “ultimate concern.”
The risks involved in this quest for some standards and understandings common to religious studies scholars but distinct from a religious community’s particular religious beliefs become apparent in examining other contributions to the roundtable. Brian Birch wants to give apologetic scholarship a place at the Mormon Studies table, but only on condition that the apologists accept answering to the authority of academic standards: their positions must be “publicly sustainable” and “objectively correctable”: “they need to be publicly accessible to criticism and potential defeat.” Only in this way, he thinks, can the “conversation stopper” of appeal to authoritative revelation be avoided.
Birch is certainly right that a flat and final appeal to revealed authority is hardly conducive to conversation. But the resort to some supposedly settled and authoritatively “public” standards of objectivity is another way of defining in advance what modes of persuasion and conviction are to be considered legitimate. Birch trusts implicitly in the standard of “publicity” operating within a self-authorized academic community as the ultimate horizon of truth-seeking discourse. But exactly what is the “public” understanding of truth among academic scholars in religious studies? What counts as “objective”? Is historical contextualization, for example, the gold standard, whether implicit or explicit, in defining “objectivity”?
The appeal to the ultimacy of History is inseparable, finally, from a certain secular humanism. The phrase, I know, is loaded, but the argument is not complicated: if there is no truth above History, then, short of a serious appeal to Providence or to some Hegelian argument for History as the unfolding of a divine Absolute (an argument that only makes sense from the standpoint of the End of History), then to explain religion finally in terms of historical context is to explain it as a variable and at bottom accidental human construction. The implications of such a secular academic faith are apparent in Stephen Taysom’s call for a new “maturity in Mormon Studies.” To be regarded as a mature discipline “that is held in esteem by the larger academic community,” he argues, will require that we distinguish “the rules of scholarly inquiry” from “those that govern eternal truth.” Implicit in these standards is the premise that Mormonism is “a cultural phenomenon … a human construct.” “Like it or not, this is what the academic study of religion is about.” These are the assumptions Mormons must accept if Mormon Studies is “to find a place in the larger academic world.”
It should be emphasized that, although Taysom’s argument was featured in this inaugural volume, it would be wrong to conclude that he is speaking for the Maxwell Institute. Still, it is hard to see how the Institute’s repudiation of a “narrowly” LDS standpoint in favor of a new project of “friendship” across boundaries could fail to lead it in the direction of such “maturity” as measured by the esteem of a “public” defined by its distance from any “parochial” religious commitments.
A further perusal of this volume yields further signs that this process of maturation is underway. Steps along the path to public scholarly esteem can best be discerned by first noting that there are two main ways in which distinctively LDS views normally run afoul of respectable scholarly opinion: let’s call them 1) history and 2) sex. Mormonism, in its own self-understanding, stands or falls with its claims to the historicity of its founding events. The most concrete of these is surely the translation of the Book of Mormon from ancient golden plates, the existence of which was testified to by at least 11 eyewitnesses. As Elder Holland has written, “everything in the Church—everything—rises or falls on the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and, by implication, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of how it came forth…” To deny the founding events thus would be and has been grounds for disqualification as a member of BYU’s faculty. Certainly the old Maxwell Institute was firmly committed to defending this historicity. But already in the first volume produced by the new Institute, a softening of this position is perceptible. In a conversation between Mormon Studies Review Editor Spencer Fluhman and prominent non-Mormon scholar of Mormon Studies Ann Taves, Dr. Taves states flatly her view “that there were no ancient gold plates.” In the spirit of friendship among mature and “cosmopolitan” scholars, Fluhman holds his silence on this question. What is a little question of gold plates among friends?
This same quest for friendship among “objective” scholars, insulated from any inconvenient or perhaps embarrassing Truth-claims, is apparent in the new issue of the Maxwell Institute’s Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. In the Introduction, the Editor warns, a little ominously perhaps, that “the approach to Book of Mormon studies on which we have settled may not please both believers and nonbelievers at the same time.” “[S]ome believers and some non believers” are expected to “experience some discomfort” at the marginalizing of “debates about the volume’s claim to describe ancient American history.” But setting aside such debates is the price of the “genuine” rigor necessary to find common ground with the nonbeliever’s interest in “investigating how the Book of Mormon works as a religious volume meant to speak to the modern world.” (vi-vii. My emphasis. Note that the question of how a book works is severed neatly from that of its truth.)
One example the editor must have in mind as likely to cause “discomfort” for believers is Paul Owen’s article, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture: A Thematic Analysis of 1 Nephi 13–14.” In this Introduction, the Editor speaks of Owen’s “inventive and suggestive interpretations about the larger implications of the Book of Mormon’s key texts.” And no one who has perused Owen’s study will be inclined to gainsay this characterization of it as “inventive.” Owen notices in a footnote that “most conservative LDS scholars continue to maintain these commitments,” that is, commitments to the Book of Mormon’s own account of its origin. (98, my emphasis) This “conservative” account is now to be respected, or at least tolerated, as long as it does not distract from the search for some “genuine rigor” among scholarly friends. And Owen himself favors an account, inventive to say the least, that “would allow the Book of Mormon to be taken as simultaneously modern and fictional, on the one hand, and miraculous and inclusive of authentic ancient material on the other.” (98)
Paul Owen’s solution would seem at least to fulfill the editor’s promise to distribute discomfort to believers and non-believers alike. But its more likely effect, if not its intention, is simply to loosen any attachment readers of the JBMS may have to the old “conservative” tale told on the title page of the book itself, a title page and a book claiming to be from “the Hand of Mormon” himself. And so one must doubt whether the discomfort engendered by the new Book of Mormon Studies as a branch of Mormon Studies is really distributed equally between “conservatives” who cling to the Book’s own account and, well, those who do not need to be named (certainly not as “liberal,” for example), since they are just the regular, real scholars who embrace the new vistas of historical rigor. A moment’s reflection is sufficient to show that to suspend or bracket the question of the ancient origin of the Book of Mormon is not really to transcend it. To say that what the Book says about itself is not what really matters is to speak volumes.
Returning to the inaugural issue of the MSR, we can begin to see what is at stake in the terms of toleration of the “conservative” view of scripture. Despite their own skepticism, Ann Taves and other prestigious scholars may well be prepared to admit into the company of scholars some LDS academics who hold traditional Mormon beliefs on the question of historicity. Such picturesque “conservative” beliefs neither pick anyone’s pocket nor break his bones, as Jefferson would say. But other forms of conservatism are less amenable to the strategy of peace by bracketing; beliefs surrounding sexuality have an immediate personal and political resonance that makes it hard to seem to split the difference on discomfort. In the contemporary academy, a belief in the angelic delivery of golden plates may be tolerated, but a belief in the moral norm of heterosexual marriage will place an aspiring scholar beyond the pale of respectability. Elder Maxwell himself clearly saw this coming: “This new irreligious imperialism,” he wrote, “seeks to disallow certain opinions simply because those opinions grow out of religious convictions. Resistance to abortion will be seen as primitive. Concern over the institution of the family will be viewed as untrendy and unenlightened.”
The maturation of LDS scholars on questions of sex and family is not trumpeted by the new Maxwell Institute but is plainly enough indicated to the attentive reader of Volume 1 of the MSR. The existence of “patriarchal oppression” is assumed, though moderate means of resistance are recommended. (198-9) The Church’s defense of traditional marriage against claims of homosexual rights is understood to be a sign of the fallibility of Church leaders. Most tellingly, perhaps, there is a warmly favorable review of Joanna Brooks’ Book of Mormon Girl, which argues for or rather demands rather vehemently that the Church embrace “marriage equality.” Brooks is perfectly confident that the Church’s stand against homosexual “marriage” is nothing but mindless propaganda motivated by “homophobia.” The MSR only notices approvingly that Brooks “does not abandon her stand on marriage equality” and welcomes her call for “room at the table for every brand of Mormon, non-Mormon, or Other she can think of” – except, to be sure, those “homophobes” and others who defend “shadowless good/evil distinctions.” Here I suppose is a kind of answer to the question the editor left open in his introduction: “what is Mormon?” At least it is clear what kind of Mormon is not welcome at this table – just the kind, that is, that once defined the Maxwell Institute.
I threatened at the beginning of this essay to disturb a fragile peace that had been achieved among cooler and wiser heads involved in the recent welter of exchanges over the proclaimed move from mere Apologetics to the broader vistas of Mormon Studies. I suppose I might have succeeded in raising questions where a measure of hard-won agreement had been obtained. My wish is not for more contention, but I do think serious discussion of the costs and benefits of expansion into mainstream scholarship as governed largely by the category of historical contextualization is in order. Let me make clear my agreement with such serious and worthy voices as Terryl Givens and David Holland: we can enrich our understanding of the truths of the Restoration, we can better understand the questions to which the Gospel provides the answers, by an open-minded and open-hearted engagement with seekers of all stripes, religious and not-so-religious. Givens and Holland and indeed the “conservative” Daniel Peterson himself are among those who have splendidly modeled for us this kind of engagement that holds fast to that which is true while seeking further light and knowledge wherever it can be found. My only caution is that we consider carefully the tradeoff between a certain quantitative expansion (reaching more “mainstream” academics, not more readers simply) and a qualitative narrowing, a bracketing of the very question of the Truth to which the questioning of the human soul responds, in favor of a reduction of the idea of “rigorous” scholarship to a domain enclosed within the parameters of a certain historical and cultural context. Historical contextualizing can be interesting and even relevant to the soul’s edification, but it must not overshadow our deep human interest in a saving and redeeming Truth beyond historical construction.
To schematize a bit for clarity, let me propose that the debate between Apologetics and Mormon Studies has heretofore been defined mainly by an opposition or supposed opposition between those who are thought to claim to have the Answers (“Apologists”) and those who propose to set aside any narrow or parochial answers in order to “expand” into the scholarly arena defined by the governing question of historical context. I have argued that “expansion” defined in this professional, academic way is actually a contraction, a reduction of deep and perennial human questions to ever-varying models of historical explanation. To be admitted into the professional guild, Mormon students of Mormonism are asked, not only to bracket their particular understanding of Truth, but to bracket the very question of Truth, the human search for meaning and happiness that provides the larger context of Holland’s study. But as soon as we spell out the terms of this dichotomy, we see that it excludes precisely the fruitful middle ground that needs to be cultivated: that is, the study of human beings as oriented towards a Truth we never completely grasp. This kind of study can be accessed from various directions (literature, philosophy, comparative theology and religion); historical study is useful, even indispensable, I would say, in each of these approaches to the understanding of human seeking, but such seeking is never reducible to the alleged “rigor” of History as an immanent field of explanation. Such false “rigor” is always purchased at the cost of separating ourselves as scholars from the humanity of the beings we study. To “expand” our audience at the cost of this separation is to risk our souls for an academic mess of pottage (and thus, incidentally, to contract our audience among non-academics who have not sworn loyalty to a certain limiting methodology).
Truly to expand by engaging other thinkers and other traditions open to the perennial human search for Truth may appear to threaten certain “apologetic” enterprises, but, any engagement with such authentic forms of human seeking promises ultimately to nourish our appreciation of the Truths we think we already comprehend. Apologists and seekers must be friends, and they must invite mere contextualizing scholars to join them, but on the higher ground of the pursuit of Truth.
Sent from my iPad