Wednesday, December 31, 2003

GENEALOGY VS. HISTORY - I've noticed that people discussing scriptures often confuse what one might choose to call the genealogy of the text with the history of the text. By genealogy I mean those events that led to the text being produced. I've noticed a distinctive trend among both Mormons and "foes" alike that assumes that the text ought to be taken on its own terms. In one sense I obviously must agree with this. Its meaning is found within the text. Yet in an other important sense, it seems to ignore the role of context in interpreting any text. If we view the "point" of the production of the text as the place where history and genealogy meet, it seems odd to place one above the other.

Lest I be taken as advocating something too abstract and philosophical, let me provide a practical application of this principle. Consider the narrative of Noah as related in the scriptures. Some see this as problematic due to the evidence against a universal flood of the sort most imagine described within the text. Yet in making this judgment, they implicitly assume that the text must be taken as it is. They can't allow for say the position of William Hamblin who has argued for a more local flood. In this case there was a real figure who was Noah who was commanded to build a barge much like the Jaredite barge. Perhaps a hurricane, massive flood or other event devastated the region (North Carolina according to some accounts of Joseph Smith). Now in this case the genealogy of the text is somewhat different from what the history of the text gives us. Its history is the later editing and redactions leading to Genesis, more than a thousand years after the time of Moses. (An other way to look at this is to say that our Genesis has its genealogy in these earlier lost texts) The narratives are told and retold again, slowly transforming themselves into the text we have now.

Why do I bring this up? I think that the repression of the very question of genealogy entails a kind of hidden inerrancy that I find problematic. It implies a static view of scripture that seems quite at odd with what Joseph Smith or other prophets have taught. Further it requires that the meaning of the text is purely found within the descriptions given within that text. It ignores the fact that what is in the text includes the feature of being about something outside the text. By castrating from the text the very question of its genealogy people remove the very question reality from the text. Put simply they remove a text's ability to reference things. This nominalizing tendency is alive and well among both foe and friend alike of the scriptures. To judge the text purely by the text is to fall in the trap of assuming an inerrancy and a determinate history to the text that denies its very nature. A nature in which an author wrote about things.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Ostler's view arises out of process philosophy, starting with Whitehead but more particularly developed by Hartshorne who was himself highly influenced by Peirce. The differences between these two thinkers are illuminating and often raise interesting issues. The overall framework of process theology I am more leery of, if only because of the implicit equating of God with the ouisa of the Trinitarian theology. It seems quite difficult to reconcile with Mormon theology. Since process theology (along with the philosophical tendencies of both Peirce and Whitehead) adopts a basically neoPlatonic outlook, the problem of the difference between the One as the source and perhaps "sum" of all reality and an individual God is rather important.

Peirce, perhaps anticipating in certain ways Buber and even Levinas, speaks of an "It" and then "thou - I" relationship. The "thou" is an "it" where "I" am also found. This is important for Ostler's view, as well as the writings of various recent Mormon theologians. (Although rarely put to print unfortunately) Peirce, however, must be seen in the context of a general neoPlatonism. Perhaps a neoPlatonism quite different from those of Emerson and especially Schilling in Germany (which culminated in both Hegel and Nietzsche as two opposed reactions).

How does this relate to DNA? Well, I bring up Peirce since DNA can best be seen as a kind of semiotic reality constituting life itself. (Once again Peirce was ahead of science) Yet mutations and other errors in DNA are also a manifestation of Peirce's fundamental doctrine of fallibilism. Many have noted a certain similarity between DNA and the logoi of late Hellenism. They provide a telos, but not a telos with a clear path. The logic of the semiotic "word" in biology is "teleonomy." Just as a perfect "form" is, in its temporal manifestation in the word, never a pure manifestation, so to do we find this with our system of DNA codes. The "individual" is this holistic manifesting of multiple logoi within the material world.

This conception, of course, begs the question of whether DNA is the only logoi at work. It we view the manifestation of DNA, especially in the development of the brain, as a complex interplay of the signs of DNA with the signs brought into the system from its environment, we can see that even in a purely sectarian view things are quite complex. (Consider, for example, the logoi of lead molecules on the developing semiotic network that characterizes a young child) If we recognize these environmental logoi that dramatically affect the manifestation of our sign carriers (the DNA of cells), then perhaps haven't we provided room for other logoi, perhaps of a more spiritual kind?

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Biology and God:

In his 1790 Critique of Judgment, Kant defined what he considered to be the essential properties of an organism (and was one of the first to use this idea with this new term): "an organized natural product is one in which every part is reciprocally both end and means... in such a natural product as this, every part is thought as owing its presence to the agency of all the remaining parts, and also as existing for the sake of the others and the whole... the part must be an organ producing the other parts--each consequently reciprocally producing the others." Such a system Kant calls 'self-organized.'

As I discussed in my previous long-winded post about the concept of "genes," the reason we cannot ascribe to genes ultimate causality is that they are part of the dynamic process of self-organization in living things. They owe their existence to the cytoplasmic elements that make and repair them and then decide which genes should be expressed where. They are necessary but only part of the whole. Now the idea of the gene as causal has been very successful in research programs, for designing experiments, and getting funding (and biotech!). But the idea may have outlived its usefulness in biology.

But wait, you say, I know that if I insert this gene into corn it will be resistant to pesticides that I can then use to kill other weeds and insects. The only difference is the inserted gene so I know it must be responsible for the observed effect. Yes, this is true, but it is an efficient causation at a very low level, and if we are too shortsighted in believing we understand all the causes then we can be in big trouble. Scientists always think they know more than they do and so science ends up often causing more problems than it solves. I think that Kant's emphasis on the whole, on the interconnectedness of the system, can serve as a critique of such short sighted science.

And as I alluded to before, I think that there are some interesting analogies and parallels that can be drawn to Mormonism. Kant's quote above strikes me as similar to the process view of the Godhead espoused by Blake Ostler in his book on the attributes of God. For Ostler, divinity is an emergent property of a group of individuals in a "godhood" relationship, that is, where all involved relate to one another (and the universe) immediately (without mediation), and are of one will, mind, and heart. God the Father is an individual who is part of such a Godhood with Christ and the Holy Ghost, and ultimately our goal is to be part of the same. Such an emergent divinity has similarities in my view to a super or macro-organism where each individual is both end and means, each adding to the other and dependent on the other.

This may be a useful link and analogy, or it may not, but what I think would be interesting is to find resources in Mormonism to address questions in biology and philosophy of biology, and even bioethics. My friend Devyn Smith recently published an article in Dialogue about "mormonism and the new biology" which asked many questions about how our religion would deal with the implications of new research in biology, primarily ethical questions, but unfortunately gave little in the way of direction as to how these questions might be addressed.

Friday, December 26, 2003

The Central Dogma of modern biology is wrong. Formulated in 1957 by Francis Crick, the idea that "DNA makes RNA, RNA makes protein, and proteins make us," guided molecular research in biology for nearly fifty years, yet from its first inception there were cracks in the edifice. Now it seems that emphasis on DNA and genes may actually be hindering progress in biology. But this knowledge has not spread to the public, who still speak in terms of genes acting and determining traits.

A brief history of the idea of "gene" may help explain my bold claim. The word was coined in 1909 to give a fresh vocabulary to the units of elementary heredity discovered by Mendel and rediscovered in 1900. In spite of this, everyone carried two assumptions over to the new term: that genes are elemental and somehow particulate, that is that they are real chemical entities analogous to atoms in chemistry and physics. The second is that the stability of the gene (as a particle) was responsible for the stability of development and type: that the Hapsberg lip was passed on from generation for hundreds of years, for example. These assumptions were dramatically vindicated in 1953 when Crick and Watson (that jerk) solved the structure of the DNA double helix and showed that the gene was a particle, DNA, and that it could replicate by copying one strand into another by complementary base pairing. This replication provided a mechanism to pass on the genes stably from one generation to the next.

Then the problems start in. It turns out that DNA mutates at about 1/100 base pairs due to copying errors and environmental insults, and so it needs to be maintained by elaborate DNA repair mechanisms: a dynamic process involving many proteins. So the DNA is not really a stable elemental repository of information. And it turns out that DNA is not active-- to say a gene does something or has some purpose is to cease talking about DNA--all DNA does is code for RNA which codes for proteins which do all the work (a la Central Dogma). But one DNA sequence makes many different kinds of RNA through alternative splicing and proteins are regulated by external signals, so the question becomes what exactly is a gene? Cannot be just the DNA sequence, but RNA and protein don't seem to be very good candidates either.

It was initially naively assumed that one gene makes one protein (wrong) and that a combination of genes acting could explain the development of an egg into a frog. However it was shown that there are regulatory elements that turn genes on and off (Jacob and Monod 1961); some of these elements are genes, and others seem to be different kinds of nucleic acid elements (ie non-coding sequences). In any case genes cannot be thought of as the agents of control anymore. Whole chromosomes are inactivated in mammals (women have one X turned off so as not to have too much expression of the X genes) and other complicated effects of the cell milieu acting on the genetic information have shown that the program for development has equal parts cytosolic and genetic components. It is the mother of all chicken and egg problems, and the answer has to be that the chicken (organism) and the egg (DNA / genes) both had to come first. (HA!)

So to sum up, although DNA codes for RNA codes for protein, there is no causal priority to the genes in the DNA. Genes are made and maintained by dynamic processes in the cell that are also inherited. Levels of control at the transcriptional (making RNA) and translational (making protein) and protein activity levels are dynamic and controlled by stimuli. Of course the information to make molecules comes from the DNA and that is crucial. But it is not the only story, and is not even the main story. You can expect to see a lot less emphasis on genes (maybe we'll even lose the word) in science and focus on systems instead.

An early researcher named Waddington saw the shift from old gene talk to dynamic systems way back in the 50's and made the connection to the process philosophy of A. N. Whitehead. I think more needs to be made of this link. I find this exciting as process theology is one of the primary ways of thinking about Mormon theology at the current time. This new biology has important things to say about biological determinism and even about implications for evolution that seem to fit into a process and mormon theology. Similar to the proteins and DNA inside a cell working together in a dynamic way to determine development in the absence of a controlling "genetic program," we see men and God working together in a dynamic process fashion to strive toward perfection in the absence of a omnipotent controlling Thomist deity.

Monday, December 22, 2003

The scientist writes well of the notion of Mormon eschatology. However ought we really say that Mormon eschatology emphasizes a "sameness" or "repetition of the same" over "difference"? I'd point out that, as discussed, Mormons speak of having their own world to create as they will. Further, unlike the more mystic forms of religion emphasizing the unio dei, Mormons believe salvation essential consists of having their own body. While we speak of "one heart and one mind" they way it is conceived seems essentially a union based upon difference and not the elimination of difference.

I'd note that Brigham Young, as good a pragmatist as those in the association we take as a namesake, agrees with those comments of John Taylor the scientist has quoted.

"When all nations are so subdued to Jesus that every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess, there will still be millions on the earth who will not believe in him; but they will be obliged to acknowledge his kingly government." (JD 7:142)

What an odd saying if we have an eschatology which supposedly suppresses such matters. What then is the unity we speak of? Brigham Young once again offers an aid.

"A perfect oneness will save a people, because intelligent beings cannot become perfectly one, only by acting upon principles that pertain to eternal life. Wicked men may be partially united in evil; but, in the very nature of things, such a union is of short duration. The very principle upon which they are partially united will itself breed contention and disunion to destroy the temporary compact. Only the line of truth and righteousness can secure to any kingdom or people, either of earthly or heavenly existence, an eternal continuation of perfect union; for only truth and those who are sanctified by it can dwell in celestial glory." (JD 7:277)

This suggests that the unity is a unity of principles upon which rational thought proceeds. One must well note that the potential acts resulting from any principle is infinite. Indeed, if we take the meaning of any principle to be precisely those acts that logically follow if the principle be true, we can see how any such principle maintains within it a diversity of opinion and thought. To place it within the more common conceptions of science, we simply note that we are all of one mind towards mathematics. Yet the manifestations of mathematics within the sciences are truly myriad, to say nothing of the practical applications to which science is placed in service.

Hugh Nibley has called Brigham Young a pragmatic genius. Perhaps then, in following in the steps of the metaphysical club of old, we ought well call Mormon eschatology a pragmatic eschatology?

Sunday, December 21, 2003

G. HOMER DURHAM: I have to confess that I am not as familiar with John Taylor as I ought to be. Gospel Kingdom is a fun book, and I have read some of the "political" passages of the book. What I wonder is how much of that book is Taylor and how much is G. Homer Durham, who was the editor.

Generally, those who follow Mormon Studies are supposed to hiss when G. Homer Durham comes on stage. The reason is that he is the GA that the Twelve braught into be Church Historian when Arrington was sent packing to BYU, and the so called "Camelot" era of the Church Historical Department came to an end. However, long before that, before Durham even became a GA, he was a very young professor of political science at Utah State in the 1940s. His ambition was to use Mormonism to discuss issues of political philosophy. He published a good little book with Bookcraft called Joseph Smith The Prophet-Statesman, which collects Joseph's political writings. More interesting, he published a couple of articles using Mormonism that appeared in mainline political science and philosophy journals like Ethics.

Durham never completed the project. He got tapped to prepared a bunch of "teachings of the prophets" books. Then he got a job at the U. of U. and I understand from talking with some of his former students that his Mormonism had to go underground. After that, he went to Arizona State as an administrator and then became a GA. However, it seems that he had a model of Mormon studies that was at least two and possibly three generations early.

Who knows, someone might pick up his project yet...
Pluralism in Mormon Theo-Democracy?

Mormon eschatology is often seen as absolutist, reducing all differences into sameness as we aim for a Zion society where all are of one heart and of one mind. Although we allow for the good of the eath to repent in the spirit world, we maintain that our ordinances are necessary for the highest degrees of salvation. The millenium is often seen in these same intolerant terms; we predict the further polarization of the sacred (us) and the secular (those responsible for the current moral decline), until the final cataclysm and destruction where the wicked are destroyed and Christ comes to reign personally on the earth. Call it a certain mormon "zionist" triumphalism.

So you can imagine my surprise when I read these words today, describing a Mormon view of the millenial reign:

"The Lord will be king over all the earth, and all mankind literally under his sovereignty, and every nation under the heavens will have to acknowledge his authority, and bow to his sceptre. Those who serve him in righteousness will have communications with God, and with Jesus; will have the ministering of angels, and will know the past, the present, and the future; and other people, who may not yield full obedience to his laws, nor be fully instructed in his covenants, will, nevertheless, have to yield full obedience to his government."

Thus it seems that in spite of the destruction of the wicked, many good people will live under Christ's reign and revere his civil authority while not partaking in the Mormon rituals. There is room for good but non-Mormon people in the Mormon kingdom. I find this very surprising coming from John Taylor (The Gospel Kingdom) who spent his last years in exile and was prone to Deseret Nationalism. It seems that much of this book is Taylor's attempt to construct a political philosophy based on the American system of democracy while establishing a theocratic Deseret regime. I wonder if our Lawyer has researched the writings of Taylor in his interests in legal mormondom, and if this would also be interesting to our Lit Crit who is enamoured of all things theo-democratic. For example he emphasizes the importance of sustaining church officials, referring to the idea of Vox Dei, vox populi. His writing is very engaging with a wonderful sermon style, and he clearly thought through these issues quite a bit.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

The historian's dichotomy between "the gnostic" and "the kingdom" is interesting. He opposes them on the basis of salvation by knowledge (gnosis) and salvation by relationship (politia?). Without necessarily disagreeing with the historian's point, may I suggest a meaning intrinsic to his models that is at least as equally interesting? The gnostics didn't just emphasis knowledge, but gave know-ing the prime place in existence. Reality became conceived of in terms of ideas, with the ideas being more real than the material world. The kingdom, requiring relationships to be understood in terms of human relations, was much more materially minded.

In a sense the gnostic turned their heart away from others and sought a salvation within themselves. The kingdom turned to others, but often degenerated as well by seeking salvation by subjugation of others.

Within Mormonism there is, of course both knowledge and community. Yet both exist in an essential, inseparable relationship. Perhaps we can even see this in the second great commandment, which was like the first. Love thy neighbor as thy self.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

TWO THEOLOGIES- It seems that there are two general trends in Mormon soteriological theology. Let me characterize them by means of two typologies: Gnostic and Kingdom. Let me emphasize that I don't think that these have any historical instantiations, nor are the categories thought out very well. Rather, they represent trends or types of thought. The Gnostic view places much emphasis on knowledge of the true nature of the cosmos, a loss of sacred distance between God and humanity. On this list, the Antiquarian has claimed that the essence of Mormonism is gnostic. It hangs on recognition of the truth that "Ye are gods." I think Mormons are sympathetic to the Gospel of Thomas when it says "When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty" (3b). Such a theology emphasizes the self and the relationship of the human to the divinity. It is thus no coincidence that the Gospel of Thomas also sees the "single one" (monachos), the sole person as the soteriological ideal (4, 23). However, the other aspect of Mormonism that I have called Kingdom emphasizes the exact opposite. It is the family, community, and entire human race that it the soteriological ideal. We seek to be welded together with all of our brothers and sisters. The afterlife continues the same kinds of sociality that we have here. The downside is that sometimes people substitute relationship with the community for personal spiritual growth. They fulfill their callings, go to all thier meetings, have family home evening, but fail to progress spiritually, perhaps without even noticing it. Such a view even discourages individual spirituality as suspicious (see 1 Cor 13).
Has Mormonism successfully bridged these two opposing theological tendencies, or do they continue to stand in tension? My feeling is that rarely are the two evenly balanced, and that many people neglect either the community or themselves individually.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

ALL ABOUT US: It seem that we are both mysterious and insightful. It is interesting to see the gradual evolution of this blog. It began as just an extension of our lunch discussions. However, it seems that with geographic distance it has become more public. Also, it seems like in the year since we founded our mystical and sacred order that the Mormon corner of the blogosphere has grown significantly. One of the joys of modern technology is that you can be a well established vetern in just a little over six months. At some point, one of us ought to write up a history of the Metaphysical Elders, much like the Sunstone article on the "swearing elders" that provided part of the inspiration for our name. By the way, I was rereading a bit of Menad's The Metaphysical Club recently, and I was struck by the fact that William James' father found religion in the "burned over district" at about the time that Joseph Smith and Mormonism were getting kicked off. As our Literary Critic has noted, B.H. Roberts and others were facinated by the congruence of Mormonism with certain aspects of James's pragmatism. It would be interesting to see if there is any intellectual gealogical work to be done here. Can one trace certain ideas in the "burned over district" out through both Mormonism and pragmatism? I don't know enough about William James to figure out if there is anything to this connection, but it is an interesting possibility...

Thursday, December 11, 2003

I think that there is something to this link, but I don't think that it does to make too much of it. I don't think that there is any necessary connnection. A while back, a guy wrote a book (can't remember the name) arguing that textualism in biblical and constitutional interpretation were linked. It didn't hold up too well. It may be that a commitment to various methods of interpretation is not really about interpretation at all. Rather, it is seen as another way of signalling institutional and cultural loyalties. Thus, it is less about understanding the scriptures and more about pointing out whcih team you are on. Of course, this doesn't answer the question of how particular methodologies got attached to particular poltical positions in the first place. However, if it is a signalling device, the original attachments may be entirely historical and accidental.

Another interesting data point in this discussion. Religion is perhaps the best indicator of political preference in the United States. However, it turns out that denomination is not the way that the indicator works. Rather, it is a question of religious activity. With the exception of black Protestants, increased religious activity is strongly correlated with increased liklihood to vote Republican rather than Democrat, and vice versa. For example, it is not the Jews are liberal, even though most Jews do vote democratic. Rather it is that most Jews are secular and religiously inactive. Those that are religiously active tend to be strongly Republican.
POLITICS AND HERMENEUTICS- The recent posts on Iron Rods and Liahonas, and "active" and "contemplative" Mormons have been very interesting. It reminds me of another issue. Is there a relationship between fundamentalist/inerrantist scriptural hermeneutics and conservative politics, and conversly post-modernist hermeneutics and liberal politics? The Religious Right seems to beleive so. They are both the most conservative and the most anxious guardians of biblical authority. The claims for inerrancy of the biblical text are not shared by most Mormons. However, in practice many Mormons are very reluctant to challenge the biblical text and believe that all of the errors were caught by Joseph Smith in the JST. Further, the principle of inerrancy is frequently applied to the BoM and the D&C, as well as any thing that has ever been said in General Conference, or even by high-ranking authorities outside of that context. My impression is that those who most vigorously defend the authority of scriptural/priesthood pronouncements (e.g., Iron Rods) are also most likely to be vigorously conservative politically. In Mormonism, is the inverse true as well? Are those few liberal Mormons likely to consider themselves Liahonas? What is the link between conservatism politically and religiously?

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

A few more thoughts on the question of whether Mormonism encourages "active" vs "contemplative" career choices. What I was trying to say in my earlier post regarding Prof. Ulrich's remark was simply that we shouldn't overgeneralize from one person's anecdotal evidence, especially when we have reason to suspect that she may have overlooked students in other wards and disciplines. After all, she only moved to the area one year ago. Yes, our wards abound with law and business students, but Harvard Law is a giant monstrosity… we would have to look at mormons as a percentage of the law school vs as a percentage of the graduate schools; it would be my guess that mormons are not under-represented in the graduate schools (and we should include schools other than GSAS--a PhD in education, genetics, or theology is just as contemplative and useless as a regular GSAS degree). Rather, mormons are over-represented in the law and business schools. This is a subtly different situation than proposed by the Dialogue article. My argument is that we really need numbers to make such claims, not just anecdotes. Show me the data.

Now there are sociological data on Mormons as scientists, see this site for the 2000 data, which show that for 60 years Utah has been the top state in per capita production of scientists. No doubt due to Widtsoe, Talmage, Roberts et al. Science is a contemplative discipline, often in conflict with mormon dogma, at least as commonly held and described by some church leaders. It requires asking hard questions about the nature of life and the universe. There have been great mormon scientists and there are great Mormon historians.

I believe the answer lies not in authoritarianism or dogmatism quenching thought in mormons, but in more subtle philosophical tenets of mormonism. (Honestly, reading Dialogue you see the same thing harped on over and over! In some ways I think the appeal to authority as the culprit is a cop-out. Not constructive or all that fun to read.) Simply, within a mormon worldview there are questions that seem more interesting or fruitful to ask to your average member. Due to the influence of the scientists in the quorum earlier, and mormonism's somewhat science-friendly metaphysic and epistemology, scientific questions are easily asked and are relevant and common. Most mormons believe in some type of scientific realism and natural law. On the other hand, certain theological and philosophical questions are not immediately obviously relevant to most members.

A similar example might be that medieval man felt part of a larger cosmos (though a lowly part) and felt that he could know the mind of God through reason and religion. In the early modern period there was no longer any guarantee of things turning out well in the end… and you start to see an emphasis in an almost imperial subjection of nature by human knowledge, say in Bacon and early philosophy of science. Nature is against us, and we must fight back, so we can have a better life here and now. The conception of nature radically changed and made scientific questions a lot more interesting. (Interestingly, we now see "natural" as a good thing and people paying more for 'organic' foods and so forth; obviously since natural is good and synthetic is bad. Very strange, since HIV, arsenic, tuberculosis, and indeed death are very natural.) Similarly, the world of theology and philosophy in Mormonism seems friendly and full of answers--why should we search elsewhere to answer our existential questions? Met needs do not motivate.

I applaud the efforts of those who like Richard Bushman or Henry Eyring can "code switch" and speak both languages, moving freely in both worlds. It is important work to speak the language of the world and synthesize learning. I tire of the separation of secular and religious knowledge. Most pre-critical Mormons will not be interested in these issues and we shouldn't be too hard on them for that; instead of pointing fingers, shouldn't we really examine what's out there, get the data, and look deeper in history and philosophy and theology rather than just the social structure of the church? We need to do thoughtful work that will contribute to the kingdom and the ivory tower.
I read the Poll essay a long time ago, and I think that I share the Scientist's reaction to it. I think that Poll himself was trying to argue that both ways of being Mormon are legitimate, but most folks I have run into who are fond of the image set it up as a hierarchy, with Liahona's being better than Iron Rodders, who we can condescendingly agree are necessary to make things run but whom we all agree don't really "get it." On the other hand, I think there is some truth to the typology and when it isn't used as a stick to beat someone with or as a mode of self-congratulation, I am in favor of it. (My, I am ornery today!)

Since, I guess I am the alleged man of action on this list because I "sold out" and went to Harvard Law School, I'll comment on Laura Thatcher Urlich's remarks. I think that there is probably some truth to the claim that Mormons tend to be more action oriented than contemplative. I think that people tend to go into law because it is a good way for the non-mathematically inclined to make a living, and it can provide a way of "doing something." On the other hand, I think that folks in the GSAS tend to have a vision of what happens in the law based more on preconceptions than on understanding. Law is a professional vocation. It is also an intellectual discipline. Some of the first European universities were formed around law schools. As Holmes observed, if you go deep enough into the law you end up doing philosophy. However, you also end up doing history, economics, politics, criminology, sociology, rhetoric, etc. Frankly, what attracted me to the law was not the desire to be a "doer" but rather the belief that the law would provide a fertile ground in which to be a thinker.

The Mormons-are-too-constrained-by-their-orthodoxy account of our lack of Miltons and Shakespeares has been recycled through the pages of Dialogue for the last thirty plus years. There is probably some truth to it. I don't really know. On the other hand, numbers and time may also play a part. Bottom line: there aren't that many Mormons and we haven't been around all that long. Miltons are rare and Shakespeares don't come along very often. On the other hand, I think that things are getting better. The Mormon visual arts have gone through something of a revolution since the Museum of Church History and Art opened in the early 1980s. There is now an institution that actively promotes and displays Mormon art, and the triennial international art competitions have actively sought to create a corpus of Mormon art. It has also awakened the interest of potential Mormon art consumers and helped to create a market for Mormon art. Is it the work of Rembrandts or Boteccellis? No. But then Rembrandts are as rare as Miltons. Some have made the argument that this art is somehow tainted because it is institutionally sponsored and thus does not express some authentic, spontaneous artistic genius. To which I respond: nonsense. This marries the concept of Great Art once and for all to a nineteenth-century, Romantic vision of the artist. This is a rather historically parochial view of the matter. The masters of the renaissance were the servants of powerful patrons and frankly a lot their stuff is not that bad.

The problem for literature, I suspect, is also in large part economic. Visual art generally has a larger audience than does ultra-high brow literature. Where is the market that will sustain the production of such literature? In the absence of a self-sustaining market in the stuff, what nice rich institutions are going to fund it?

Monday, December 08, 2003

The distinction that the Historian brings up was first described in a Dialogue article in 1967 by Richard Poll. A sloppy online version can be found here. It is an immensely popular idea and has been the basis of many Dialogue articles since then; the original essay has been republished in several collections including A Thoughtful Faith and Personal Voices. Personally I have not found the typology all that helpful; I think that this likely means that I am an "Iron Rodder;" in my experience people who identify with this typology always identify themselves as "Liahonas."

May I also draw attention to this article in the most recent issue of the same venerable Mormon publication: What is the Challenge for LDS Scholars and Artists? by John and Kirsten Rector. The article discusses reasons why we have not yet produced that promised Shakespeare or Milton, or comparable scientific or artistic achievement. As is typical of such articles, it suggests that one reason is dogmatism, that Mormons are too close-minded, and that we are too busy with other priorities such as family and church service. One interesting point it raised however, is that Mormons are action oriented. And I quote:

"Indeed, Latter-day Saints seem to fit well within certain professions such as politics, law, and business, where maintaining the status quo is often valued and emphasized. An LDS faculty member at Harvard University recently observed that while members of the church were well-represented at her institution's prestigious Business and Law Schools, very few LDS students could be found in Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She suggested that perhaps our culture encourages "action-oriented talents" more than "contemplative talents." "

Well, first off, three cheers for GSAS! Makes me proud. Now, the professor was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and I think this may be a stronger claim than is warranted, since she is a member of the Cambridge 2nd ward which admittedly is made up of primarily HBS and Law School students. But there are three Mormons in the chemistry department, two in english, at least two at the Divinity school, and in public health and other disciplines over at the med school; and those are just the ones I happen to know. And if you count the many mormon graduate students at MIT (primarily in engineering, but also in physics and computer science) I think that the numbers are not so skewed as she projects. Again I think this is just a result of not being acquainted with the Mormon community in the area.

Also I am told that among Mormons we find a higher percentage of scientists than among other faiths (unless you would include agnostic or atheist as a faith).

So what do you think, o ye action-oriented types? Has the church driven you away from your contemplative talents? And contemplative types, do you experience cognitive dissonance?
LIAHONAS AND IRON RODS- Recently, my bishop characterized members of my ward as falling into roughly two camps: those who follow the Liahona and those who follow the Iron Rod. I don't know if he came up with it himself, or if it comes from somewhere else, but I really liked it. Those who follow the Iron Rod tend to have a clear picture of the church and the right way to do things, a solid line that cuts through the mist of darkness. Those who follow the Liahona tend to seek spiritual guidance as they wander in the wilderness. They may be more likely to question the way when Iron Rodders beleive the answer is clear. I like this typology very much because it allows for spiritual space for both kinds of members of the church. To be fair, no one is entirely one or the other, but it is a useful way to think of general trends. Too often each group fears the other, thinks they are wicked, and will lead to the downfall of the church. In reality, they represent two very different ways of being in the church, each of which are faithful, uplifting, and fulfilling for those who belong to them. I think that we have a lot of work to do to learn to respect each other, rather than criticize and demonize. May our spindles point more straight and our rod wander a bit.

Monday, December 01, 2003

For what it is worth, your letter and the tussle on Times & Seasons produced the most traffic to the Metaphysical Elders' site of any post in the long and storied history of our blog. Congratulations!
MY PROFESSOR UPDATE- The letter has been read by my professor. S/he just called me and told me that s/he has no interest in getting involved in an inter-necine polemic and that s/he would give them an earful about the "textaul transmission of the Holy, Sacred, New Testament." Whew.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

INTELLECTUALLY DISHONEST??- The letter to my professor has sparked an interesting discussion at the Times and Seasons blog. The discussion has mostly focused on my claim that "Informed Mormons have shown for over sixty years on the basis of the Book of Mormon text itself that it does not teach that Native Americans are descended from Israelite origin". Kaimi Wenger has accused me of being intellectually dishonest in making this claim. However, I am surprised by this since I take what I have said to be entirely uncontroversial. I admit that often times uncritical statements are made that support the notion that all Native Americans trace thier decent to Lehi, but I think that these are "uninformed" statements. I equated "informed Mormons" with "Mormon scholars" in my post. I (with all the intellectual honesty I can muster) cannot think of a single Mormon scholar (that is, Mormon scholars of the Book of Mormon) who does not accept a version of the view I presented here. Additionally, I think that this idea will become increasingly dominant in the Church at large. While I have never attended BYU, my perception of the high status that scholars who defend this view have there is evidence that this veiw is frequently taught in Book of Mormon classes. These students will go on to teach Sunday School, seminary, etc. The most important witness, however, is not the list of bibliographical references who support one view or the other, but what the Book of Mormon text actually says. With that in mind, I think I am on pretty solid ground.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

This is an extremely well thought out letter. I am impressed. I hadn't heard the point about 19th century meanings of the word "translate." I am curious as to whether you know of any 19th century Mormons using the term in this sense. I am thinking of Joseph's discussion of the accuracy of various Bible translations in the King Follett Discourse. He seems to be talking about linguistic translation.

I am also curious to what extent we as Mormons should play that "anti-Mormons are hurtful" card. I think that there are some anti-Mormons who are genuinely vicious and hateful. On the other hand, I think that some of the Joseph-Smith-was-inspired-by-Satan crowd are quite sincere, and I honestly don't think that they have suspect motives or desires. I just think they are wrong. My tendency is to think that talking about the emotive effect of speech is a distraction and that we ought to focus on its content. I realize this is really crude. On the other hand, it seems that these sorts of arguments can be turned around on us fairly easily.
LIVING HOPE MINISTRY- One of my professors of New Testament was recently contacted by Living Hope Ministry about participating in a video about the textual transmission of the Bible directed against contradicting Mormon claims. He has tentatively agreed, but he asked my opinion and wanted to know more about the project. I just finished writing him a letter, presented here.

November 25, 2003

Dear Prof. (name witheld),

As we discussed, I looked into the Living Hope Ministry. I wanted to summarize some of my findings and assess the overall scope of the project to which they have asked you to contribute.

I have long been sensitive to evangelical critics of Mormonism. Far too often, whether done out of ignorance or malice, they have spread lies about Mormons and been very hurtful. They frequently misrepresent Mormon belief and portray them as monstrous, evil people. They are often believed to have been either deceived by Satan or Satanic emissaries themselves. They often use the genre of the exposé focusing on some salacious materials or incorrect beliefs.

The Living Hope Ministry is located in Brigham City, Utah, a small town about 90 minutes north of Salt Lake City. They describe themselves as “a small, evangelical non-denominational congregation.” I examined their website to assess the character of this group. To their credit, I must say that Living Hope Ministries is relatively mild and does attempt to be respectful, couching their criticism in terms of love.

According to its mission statement: “Living Hope Ministries exists to produce and provide materials useful to individuals, churches, and ministries for the evangelization of those who are caught in the deception of the LDS Church.” The phrase “caught in the deception” seems to imply that there is some kind of active deception being perpetrated by Mormons or Mormon leaders. The website calls Joseph Smith as a liar and a false prophet and declares that “the Bible says Joseph Smith is eternally condemned.”

They discuss Mormons’ claims to spirituality and fellowship with the Holy Ghost: “We have also tested these experiences and found that they are not consistent with the ministry of the Holy Spirit taught in the Bible. The Bible teaches that demonic spirits influence people. These spirits can only be effectively defeated by following the instructions of God in the Bible.” Again, the notion that Mormons have been deceived by Satan is a common motif.

The Living Hope Ministry produced a video recently that dealt with DNA and the Book of Mormon. They gathered scientists, some of whom were former Mormons, to discuss a supposed Mormon belief that Native Americans were descended from Israelite origin. They included one LDS scholar. I have some criticisms of the film. First, their representation of Mormon belief was often misleading. They attacked popular beliefs held by Mormons about the Book of Mormon, but rarely addressed any of the scholarly material. Informed Mormons have shown for over sixty years on the basis of the Book of Mormon text itself that it does not teach that Native Americans are descended from Israelite origin (Mormon scholars argue that the Book of Mormon story took place a limited geographical space and that the DNA of one family could not have had any measurable impact on the DNA of an entire native population). The misrepresentation of LDS belief was highlighted by the interview with the sole LDS scholar. He was quoted describing what he believed the Book of Mormon was when he was a child, but was never quoted describing what he now believed about the Book of Mormon.

Second, the video often mixed theological and historical arguments. This was evident in the way that many of the issues were framed, e.g. “Joseph Smith cannot have been a prophet if…” There were several quotations from the Bible about “false prophets” and “one gospel.” The point is that the video was not a scientific study, but a focused theological attack. The video concluded with an invitation to Mormons who may have been watching to offer up this sample prayer:
“Dear Lord Jesus,
I know that I am a sinner and need Your forgiveness. I believe that You died for my sins. I want to turn from my sins. I now invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust You as Savior and follow You as Lord. I give you my life—make me the person You want me to be and help me daily to live my life for You.
Thank you Jesus,

My preliminary assessment of the project that they have asked you to participate in is similar. This new video aims to treat the transmission history of the Bible. They have invited scholars of the New Testament and Hebrew Bible to be interviewed. It seems that they intend to attack either popular notions of LDS belief about the transmission of the Bible, or common misconstructions of it.

It is important to note that there is not official LDS teaching on this subject. Beliefs about the Bible are as wide-ranging within Mormonism as any other church. The most that can be said officially is the Mormons do not believe that the biblical text is inerrant. Conservative Christians object to this. The common critique of the LDS view comes from one of the Articles of Faith, a set of informal doctrinal explanations written by Joseph Smith. It says: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly. We also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” There are two objections to this statement by critics. First, they object to the insinuation that the Bible is not “translated” correctly. Second, they object to the fact that the Book of Mormon does not have the same qualification, which seems to elevate its authority above that of the Bible.

These objections, however, misrepresent the issue. Word studies of 19th century usage of the word “translate” show that it was often used to mean, “transmit,” or “transform.” In this sense it does question the transmission history of the biblical text and its inerrancy. However, it would be strange to assert the opposite, e.g. “We believe the Bible to be true including transmission errors.” The LDS view here simply allows for the possibility of transmission errors, and claims that they are not binding. Yet frequently critics exaggerate this claim. Why then does this caveat not appear for the Book of Mormon? The primary reason why is that Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Mormon from the autograph text. There were no “transmission” errors. Additionally, the Book of Mormon itself claims that it is subject to errors and imperfections. If one believes the Book of Mormon, one accepts prima facie that there are errors in it.

Critics sometimes charge that Mormons believe that the biblical text is therefore “unreliable.” As far as I am aware, this claim has never been made. Sometime LDS scholars point out that we do not have the complete record of early Christianity, such as Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, but this is not the issue at stake. Rather, Mormons claim that the Bible is not sufficient for salvation or knowing the entire will of God. The Bible is historically conditioned, and as such, represents God’s revelation for the past. This revelation is not replaced by Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, etc, but is supplemented by God’s continued revelation. One of the other Articles of Faith explains: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” This denies the notion of a closed canon, but does not declare that the Bible is irrelevant or unreliable.

Another theological claim that is often brought into this debate is that many LDS doctrines are not “biblical.” In most cases there are interpretive issues at stake, such as the meaning of “baptism for the dead,” whether or not the Trinity is a biblical doctrine, or whether or not the Bible teaches that it is a closed canon. In others cases, some LDS doctrines cannot be found in the Bible. For biblically based Christians this is a problem. But for Mormons, the doctrine of continuing revelation holds that God continues to reveal to humanity on subjects such as soteriology, cosmology, etc. This question is a theological and hermeneutical one, not a historical one. It has to do with the status and authority of the biblical text, not with its accuracy. Mormons could accept that the Bible has been transmitted completely accurately, but their hermeneutics are fundamentally different.

My larger point is that I am unsure how anything you would say about the transmission history of the Bible could be properly construed as a way of disproving a tenant of Mormon belief. Quite simply, I am positive that if you were invited to speak to a Mormon audience on the same subject that you would be warmly received. I have read your books and heard your lectures and do not find anything you say about the history and development of the Gospels or the Pauline traditions to be at all inconsistent with my beliefs as a Mormon. For this reason I am skeptical about what you have to offer to these people. It seems that only by setting up a straw-person of Mormon belief is it possible for them to contradict Mormonism’s claims about this issue. However, it seems that conservative Christian groups, like those interviewing you, would not only disagree with you, but have much more at stake given their pre-conceived notions about the status of the Bible. It is the selectivity of their intentions that concerns me.

I hope that this is helpful in making the decision whether or not to participate.


Thursday, November 20, 2003

ANGELS (AND MORMONS) IN AMERICA: Andrew Sullivan has a take down here of recent crooning at the New York Times about HBOs forthcoming production of Tony Kurshner's Angels in America. Angles is a play that chronicles the AIDS epedemic in the 1980s, and won a Pulitzer Prize in the 1990s.

What is interesting to me is that the play has a Mormon character (to be played on HBO by Patrick Wilson) -- a closet homosexual -- who in one scene appears on stage in a homosexual encounter wearing temple garments. Kurchner clearly doesn't really know anything about Mormons or at least about temple garments. (Although he may have known how offensive Mormons would find such a staging.) His Mormon character utters some strange gibberish about the meaning of the garment that is suppose to sound very, uh, Mormon. For example he refers to the garment as "a second skin," an image that to my knowledge no Mormon has ever used in discussing the garment. Thus, Angels' Mormon is not a real Mormon, but a sort of stand-in stereotype for repressed religiously conservative sexuality. Mormons are kind of straight straight guy, if you will, and Angels plays off of this image by making its Mormon homosexual.

I don't know if HBO is planning on having the garment scene in their production. (I hope not.) However, it is interesting to see that Mormon stereotypes have come full circle. We started out in the 19th century as the ultimate boogey men of Victorian sexuality. By the close of the 20th century we are once again the sexual boogey men, although admittedly for a different kind of sexuality.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Let me see if I can get my plodding brain around the Literary Critics polysyllabic ode and aria. Mormons like to say things like, "I know that Mormonism is true as surely as I know that I am standing here today." The point of the statement is that religious knowledge is assimilated wholly into "regular" knowledge and all notion of religious mystery or other worldly transcendence is banished by the single minded force of Mormon literalism and this worldliness. For Givens this means that Mormonism is more "real" and substantive that the traditional namby-pamby metaphysical mumbo jumbo of theism. (Note, the commute from Little Rock to Cambridge being a long one, I missed the Givens talk.) To our Literary Critic this looks dangerously like fundamentalism. (I am not sure exactly what he means by this term, but I suspect that it has something to do with horror of polyester and a certain sternness during Gospel doctrine class.)

Our Literary Critic would also agree that he knows the Gospel is true as surely as he knows that he is standing here today, but he does so with an ironic and post-modern wink. After all, how does he "really" know that he is standing here today. The concepts of "standing" and "hereness" are embedded in historicized modes of consciousness that inevitably keep us from having an unmediated and pure experience of either our posture or our location.

Since we have expanded the theological tent to take in our hum-drum, historicized, post-metaphysical world (or perhaps vice versa) we have the ability to stand within our theology while talking about our historicized condition and are relieved of the hopeless task of cordoning off some metaphysically pure and unmediated space were God may safely graze.

How am I doing?

My question at this point is what does the value added of Mormon thought become. It is exciting to look into the abyss and proclaim that it is turtles all the way down, but if we have already decided that we live in a turtles all the way down world, what are we learning by being Mormon? I am willing to say that pragmatism may be a fun and exciting intellectual perspective (I have my suspicions that it may be circular) and it may even get one tenure. The current hippness of pragmatism is felt even in the plodding halls of legal theory. I guess that I want to know what the Mormon flavor of pragmatism looks like, and what that flavor tells me about some non-Mormon question.

Sorry if this is too flippant or incoherent. The son-of-Lawyer has been teething so sleep has been rare of late.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Since nobody has seemed to bite on my prior post, I will follow the Antiquarian's incredibly important line of inquiry. Making Mormonism an independent variable is exactly what I was awkwardly trying to express in my blog on Givens's talk. To make Mormonism more relevant we need to demonstrate its dialogical relation to other discourses rather than its exceptional insularity from them. We need to use Mormonism to shed light on cultural and historical questions that have wider currency. For instance, what do we learn about pragmatism (about as hot a topic right now as any, at least in my field) rather than Mormonism when we note the affinity that early twentieth-century Mormon leaders like B.H. Roberts felt towards "the late Dr. James of Harvard"? What could an exposition of the historical connections between these two discourses reveal about pragmatism's appeal and audience at the moment of its emergence? By highlighting Mormonism's participation in rather than aloofness from a much-cogitated-over discourse like pragmatism, Mormonism suddenly becomes a useful point of reference for a much larger scholarly community. Upon such a basis, we and others--non-Mormons included--might responsibly begin to specify Mormonism's historical particularity without worrying about possible lapses into religious exceptionalism.

To make Mormonism an exhibit in a larger theory about (American--my bias) religion, philosophy, law, or culture seems to be the most exciting way to go. For instance, if I can succeed in demonstrating Mormonism's proto-pragmatist tendencies en route to spinning a grander tale about the trajectory of pragmatism and religious humanism in the Americas, then presumably future intellectual historians will have to reckon with Mormonism in a more serious way. It will no longer be confined to the ghetto of Mormon studies but will instead be a monumental landmark in any discussion of American intellectual history. Inserting Mormonism into a larger narrative, highlighting its affinities with other discourses--contrary to all that we have been taught--may be the way to really put Mormonism on the map.

Mormonism as independent variable! Yeah!

I'd love to hear responses to my longer blog if any of you get the chance. Mostly I want to know if it makes any sense. I'm having anxiety about my level of comprehensibility lately.

I agree with a large part of what the Antiquarian writes below. In particular, I agree with him that we should do more to use Mormonism as a way of providing perspectives on issues of general intellectual interest. For example, I know that Mormon law professors are invited from time to time to symposia, etc. where they are asked to provide a Mormon take on some issue -- abortion, corporate governance, etc. It is very rare that they are asked to provide an informed voice in a discussion of the nature of Mormonism. Such discussions don't take place in legal academia and no one is really interested in them. Furthermore, I actually think that treating Mormonism as an independent variable is both more intellectually challenging because it requires working out answers to questions for which it is not clear that there is a dominant "Mormon" answer, and also more religiously important since it allows God to provide us with greater illumination in the world.

However, I am less convinced by the claim that any discussion that treats Mormonism as the dependent variable is necessarily apologetic. By this logic all study becomes apologetic for the dependent variable it seeks to explain. Perhaps this is true, but so broad meaning for the word would seem to rob it of the nuance that makes it interesting (and problematic) in our particular context. I think that our size and comparative insignificance explains why outsiders would find the study of Mormonism boring, uninteresting, or not worth the trouble. It doesn't explain why they find the study of Mormonism by Mormons apologetic and therefore intellectually suspect. It also doesn't explain why when Jan Shipps or Sally Gordon studies Mormonism it is not regarded as apologetic. It seems to me that the apologetic label comes from two sources. First, Mormons studying themselves probably don't do as good a job as Shipps or Gordon of connecting the Mormon story to broader themes. (Note, however, that both Shipps and Gordon to greater or lesser degrees still treat Mormon experience as a dependent variable worthy of study.) I think that the second reason is essentially ad hominem. It is not what is said that is suspect so much as who says it and why. The implication is that there is something intellectually suspect about Mormons who try to talk intellectually about Mormonism. Their interest is somehow illegitimate because it flows from suspect sources like religious faith. This is not to say that discussions that see Mormonism purely in exceptionalist terms or as the end of history are not open to a charge of apologetic parochialism. I am just not convinced that it is the dependent nature of the variable that matters here.
Why is Mormonism always the Dependent Variable?

I did not have the opportunity to attend Given’s talk which I quite regret. Thanks for the summaries of it presented bellow. I must say that I like Given’s scholarship quite a bit. However, I’m not as enamored of his views on some subjects (say the differences between the Bible and Book of Mormon) as many seem to be at the moment. However his ideas about the redefinition of the sacred and how this impacts other areas, like aesthetic theory, strike me as being very important.

I must also say that I am not at all surprised by the reaction of the non-LDS members of the audience. And, to a certain extent, I think they are probably right. I recently had the opportunity to interview for a professorship at a prominent Jesuit college. In fact this was the reason that I couldn’t make it up to Boston to see Givens.

It occurred to me that the Jesuits I spoke with (yes, there are still some of them in higher education) never really spent much time explaining or justifying to me why the catholic intellectual tradition was distinct, or how it evolved over time. Rather they only spoke about the Jesuit approach to education so far as it was useful to understanding some larger phenomenon, namely how it is that we can collectively educate well rounded young adults.

Notice the difference here. Rather than taking catholic intellectual tradition, something which they knew I was not part of and (wrongly) assumed I would not be interested in, as the dependent variable (or the thing that needs focus and explaining), they used it as an independent variable to better illuminate and discuss something that we are all interested in. How you go about training better students. The end result was that I didn’t feel I was being led in an apologetic direction. Rather an open discussion happened on a topic of mutual interest into which one additional explanatory variable was inserted. The end result of all of this is that I still don’t know the deep historical details of how the Jesuit educational tradition came about. But I know what function it serves, and I can honestly say that I would be happy to be part of that tradition even if I’m not a Jesuit myself.

Let’s turn now to the so called field of “Mormon Studies.” So long as we talk about “us”, why we are who we are, I don’t think we are going to be horribly useful to the wider world out there. Quite frankly there aren’t that many of us and very few people, even few religious scholars outside the LDS church, actually care about the nuances of how we got here. There too many bigger question. So far as we are going to engage outside scholars we need to stop talking about ourselves as the dependent variable, as the endpoint of some bizarre historical pathway that nobody else seems to be on, and start using Mormon history and sociology as a tool for understanding broader trends in world religious movements today.

It goes without saying that there is a huge amount you can learn about the growth of new religious movements, or what is going on in Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere, if you take Mormonism as one case study among many. You may even increase outside interest in a few studies that do take Mormonism as a DV so that conceptual refinement may happen. But if we continue to insist on making it the end object of ALL public discussions, outsiders will quite rightly perceive that they have not been engaged on a topic they were interested in. Rather they were just made the audience for an identity building exercise (i.e., apologetics). So let’s hear it for Mormonism as an independent variable!

Thursday, November 13, 2003

I also had the privilege of attending Terryl Givens's lecture the other night at the Harvard Divinity School and wanted to post my inchoate impressions. I must say that I adore Givens's argument about the nature of the Mormon heresy. His contention that the Mormon heretical difference resides in its radical collapse of the unbridgeable distance between humanity and divinity, between the temporal and the eternal, which distance has constituted nothing less than--as he puts it--the sine qua non of the Western conception of the sacred, is right on target as far as I am concerned.

As you all well know by now, I am incredibly fond of pointing out--following Sterling McMurrin--that Mormonism is arguably a secular humanism in extremis. Mormonism's incessant impatience with mystery, its ruthless demystification of the otherworldly, its absolute insistence on the materiality of the most exalted spheres and beings, its profound historicism in relation to the same--these are the things that rev my intellectual engine.

However, it quickly became apparent in the course of Givens's remarks that his argument for Mormonism's radical demystification of traditional notions of the sacred was not necessarily headed in this direction, but rather that it could readily be apprehended as nothing more than a clever remystification. Givens's argument that Mormonism refuses to be allegorized, that in its collapse of sacred distance it requires that one reckon with it as "fact," can be seen as tantamount to a fundamentalist faith-claim. It is no wonder that non-Mormon audience members felt that it was rather transparently apologetic.

What I realized in my post-mortem conversation with the Historian was that Givens was essentially posing a highly problematic dichotomy between traditional Christianity and Mormonism wherein the former is seen as freighted with human "myth"-making while the latter is seen as somehow free(r) of such intervening interpretation. Inasmuch as even the most sophisticated scholarship (like Givens's) insinuates that Mormonism is somehow less encumbered by the burden of human interpretation, then critics--even sympathetic ones--will not unfairly compartmentalize it as apologetic.

Such smart appeals to Mormonism's radical epistemology of revelation--a move I myself am wont to make--will always be construed as apologetic if they imply that Mormon access to the divine is somehow more factual, more literal, less mediated, more direct. Not only is this claim spurious in the eyes of non-Mormon scholars (and rightly so), it is rather uninteresting as far as I'm concerned, and in a real way it betrays what I consider to be the most promising aspects of Mormon theology. If all we are interested in as faithful Mormon scholars is adding yet another argument for exceptionalism, however ingenious, to the ever-accumulating and ever-more-suffocating mountain of religious exceptionalisms, then we are bound to be somewhat marginalized in the academic world, which is fine--and proper--as far as many--non-Mormon and Mormon--are concerned.

However, Givens's prescient argument might be redirected to more truly radical ends. If it is true that Mormonism demystifies the divine, leveling everything onto a single plane characterized by materiality, dynamism, and interrelation--if everything is finally a permutation of cosmic culture--then what strikes me as interesting is precisely the unavailability of fundamentalist appeals to an exceptional transcendence. If Mormonism so radically familiarizes the other world as to recreate it in the image of this one, then the rules that apply here--epistemological opacity, endless renegotiation, ad hoc improvisation, the heaviness of history, the inescapability of interpretation--would seem to apply there to a real degree.

In other words, highlighting a Mormon epistemology of revelation would not be a means to reinscribe yet another objectivist claim to transparent Truth, but rather it would introduce a Mormon multiverse made up of innumerable divine beings struggling to understand one another, to create societies ever more capable of saving ever more souls, societies fraught with misunderstandings, misconceptions, and disjunctions much like ours. While secular humanism tends to compartmentalize the divine and privatize religion as a sphere apart, a sphere radically different from the public sphere in which humans interact--which implicitly sanctions the traditional conception of the sacred, I would add--Mormonism takes the premises of secular humanism all the way to the heavens, converting theology and metaphysics into a kind of cosmic cultural criticism.

The danger of such an approach, as Givens acknowledged, is that it might trivialize or cheapen the sacred. But that is the game Mormonism dares to play, and one implication of Givens's argument is precisely to call out the sterility of sacredness itself where it is dependent on total removal from the realm of the humanly recognizable. (Sacredness is overrated anyway--I much prefer fruitfulness or usefulness--gimme a crowbar not a Faberge egg). But insofar as this is cause for geniune concern, I think this danger can be obviated by engaging in the delightfully perverse project of developing--or at least insinuating--a cosmic cultural theory that refuses to gloss over the complexity of social interaction, as the best humanistic cultural theories expounded in the academy do. Without a sufficiently rich theory of cosmic culture we will end up--as we often do in Mormonism--with a cartoonish celestial bureaucracy in which two-dimensional seraphim sit in clerks' offices compiling official salvation statistics. At the same time, I always thought the question "Will there be football in heaven?" was an entirely valid one.

The point is that one way to escape the apologetic mode and create a Mormon presence on the contemporary intellectual scene would be to deploy Givens's argument to the ends I have just described--to use Mormonism to throw into relief the obscurantist taboos of secular humanism and point to what might be a genuinely new form of religiosity (airs of exceptionalism?) that constructs the divine not as a refuge from human complexity, but rather as its apotheosis, a form of religiosity accessible to all because embodied in all, a form of religiosity in which the salvation of the world is nothing more--to follow the example of Joseph's brilliant use of emphatic tautology (i.e. to become a God "you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves . . . as all Gods have done before you")--than the actual saving of the world in the most concrete sense. Such a Mormonism would not fail to assert its relevance to the wider world.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

ME? EDGY?: Apparently there are people out in the big wide world who read this blog. A bit frightening, eh? Dave’s Mormon Inquiry Weblog after a bit of complimentary (and therefore entirely accurate) discussion of my last post had this to say:

    Particularly edgy is his critique of Mormon intellectual troublemakers as reenacting the "modern intellectual creation myth" of Galileo versus the Church, which should make a few readers squirm. . . . If you are a Mormon intellectual and find yourself troubled by The Lawyer's remarks, go read D. Michael Quinn's defense of honest history here as a tonic. We're all living inside a myth. We can do so honestly, or not.

Well I certainly hope that I have not unduly troubled any Mormon intellectuals, and if I have I am sure that Quinn’s essay (the link is to his contribution to Faithful History edited by George Smith) will have them breathing more easily soon.

From Dave’s remarks (and bibliography) I take it that my edginess comes from the way in which I was using the idea of a Galileo myth to attack “honest inquiry.” Since this was not my intent, I should clarify what I said. I was trying to make two points, one of which responded to the issue raised by the Historian and one of which was gratuitous in the sense of not responding to the issue raised by the Historian. My first point was that the congruence of a certain strand of critical Mormon scholarship with what I called the creation myth of intellectual modernism may account for the fact that such scholarship is well regarded by non-Mormons despite the fact that some of it is not especially insightful, especially compared to “apologetic” work by someone like Givens or Bushman. My second (gratuitous) point was that the power of the Galileo myth may suggest why some find doing or reading this kind of critical scholarship so appealing. Or perhaps to put it more bluntly, the power of the myth may explain a certain kind of preening engaged in by (or over the work of) those whose analytic insights are quite meager. (For the record, I named David John Buerger as a person whose scholarship I have frequently seen praised as better than I think it in fact is. I have never read anything in which Buerger himself preened. Also for the record, I think that much of Buerger’s stuff is pretty good. It is solid and well researched. I don't think it is interpretively illuminating)

Myth is still a charged word I supposed and inevitably carries pejorative connotations for some. My point is not that there are some people who have myths and some who do not. I agree with Dave that “We're all living inside a myth. We can do so honestly, or not.” Nor was my point that every “honest” scholar is somehow living out a Galileo fantasy. Rather, I am trying to offer a theory to explain what I see as a persistent phenomenon in Mormon studies. While some iconoclasts like Brookes or even Quinn provide a great deal of substance to think about, not every taboo breaker is a deep thinker. Nor, as sometimes seems to be assumed, is taboo breaking itself evidence of insight or even objectivity. As for Dave's suggested tonic, I actually agree with much of what Quinn says in his essay. In particular, I don't think that we do a service to our members by feeding them faith promoting stories that are simply not true. On the other hand, I don't think that one can really turn Sunday school into a graduate seminar, nor do I think it desirable to do so. Once one is in the graduate seminar, however, I think that we should celebrate careful and informed discussion, even if it doesn't sound like what we hear in Sunday school. (I also don't think this is as controversial a position as Quinn or Dave might think.)

To some extent I think that my response may be a generational thing. I have been told repeatedly by older students of Mormon studies that I don’t really appreciate how big a deal it was to do certain kinds of research or talk about certain kinds of things way back when. This is no doubt true, and I freely admit to being ungrateful to my elders. Perhaps it is an accident of my upbringing, but having been aware of most of the "scandalous" bits of Mormonism for so long, their mere revelation doesn't do much for me anymore. I am more interested in some kind of interesting interpretation or explanation. My problem is not that I think Dave's "intellectual troublemakers" are wicked, atheistic anti-Mormons bent on destroying the faith. My problem is that I think they are often boring.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

I am not sure if there is a way of ever totally escaping the problem laid out by the Historian. Givens is a good example. The New York Times review of Givens's book discussed it has it as a straight forward but scholarly defense of the Book of Mormon. In contrast, on a recent NPR program out of Salt Lake, Givens was misidentified as a non-Mormon scholar and was brought in as the neutral third voice in a debate over the Book of Mormon and DNA evidence. I am not sure that one can do a much better job at this than does Givens. Bushman is another example. I once heard him proudly tell the story of how one scholar reading Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism had an epiphany about half-way through the book when he realized that Bushman actually believed all this stuff. It hadn't occurred to him before that. Bushman was proud that his belief was not immediately obvious. However, I have read other reviews of his scholarship that chide him for taking Mormon sources at "face value," the implication being that this shows his apologetic bias. I think that if you want to do Mormon scholarship as a believing Mormon, you simply have to accept the risk (perhaps the inevitability) that some will dismiss you as an apologist.

I think there are some structural reasons for this difficulty. To a certain extent, I think that Mormon theology naturally tends towards the apologetic for the simple reason that so much of our theology was originally formulated in terms of apologetics. Thus, what seem to us to be natural and neutral modes of talking about Mormonism still may bear the mark of an apologetic genesis and structure. The same is largely true of our history. The questions that one asks and the developed literature with which one deals had its origins in apologetics or in a reaction against them. Either way, the stamp of those origins is there in the structure of the discussions.

Another problem has to do with what I see as the creation myth of intellectual modernism. The hero of this myth is Galileo, the man who stood up against religious ignorance by speaking the truth to religious power, only to be punished. (Never mind the historical difficulties of this story; it is the mythic power of it that matters.) The elements of the story -- religious orthodoxy based on false beliefs, authority and power as the response to dissent, heroic intellectuals speaking truth -- show up again and again in Mormon studies. Because Mormonism has taboos, inaccuracies in quasi-authoritative sources, and a history of sporadic sanctions against dissenters, it provides a tempting forum for the re-enactment of this myth. One can break powerful taboos in Mormonism by taking intellectual positions. It is more difficult to do this in, say, bio-chemistry or law. (But not impossible, Catherine MacKinnon has largely made a career out of suffering academic martyrdom.) Breaking the taboos runs the risk of sanctions from religious authorities and thus allows the taboo breaker to participate in the primal myth of intellectual modernism. Thus, accountants, lawyers, high school English teachers, etc. can give "controversial" papers at Sunstone symposiums and replay the myth with themselves cast as the hero. This is not to suggest that "amateurs" cannot make important contributions to Mormon scholarship, but rather to simply point out the temptation of a certain kind of shortcut to apparent profundity. Because a certain kind of taboo breaking flows so easily into that myth, I think that it is easy for an often uninformed outside world to accept the "seriousness" of such taboo breaking largely as a result of its mythic appeal. I don't want to sound too cynical here. I think that the Church has been too heavy handed at times in its responses to intellectuals. Furthermore, I think that there has been some real intellectual progress as a result of some daring souls willing to push against taboos, e.g. Juanita Brooks. But I think that there is something to the dynamic that I sketch here.

Take, for example, the work of David John Buerger. He is the author of a very good article on the Adam-God theory and a book on temple ritual. His virtue is that he does a good job of collecting together often obscure sources and laying out his research. Since he seems to be doing history, perhaps this is all that one really needs to be a virtuoso scholar. He certainly seems to be a good archival mole, and I have profited from reading the stuff that he has turned up. He is scrupulously unapolegetic in his writing, and along the way, he pokes holes in some claims made by general authorities (e.g. Joseph Fielding Smith on Adam-God) and breaks some very powerful taboos (e.g. discussions of temple rituals that are much more detailed than most Latter-day Saints would feel comfortable with, long discussions of similarities to Masonry, etc.). I don't know if Buerger ever called down official ire on his head. It is easy to see how he might. Certainly, some official action would be all that would be necessary to complete his enactment of the Galileo myth. The problem with his work, however, is that despite its usefulness in collecting the sources, he really doesn't have anything to say. He offers us no real theory about what is going on in Adam-God much less the temple. However, the power of the modern creation myth gives his work an aura of analytic substance. It is easy for a relatively poorly informed outsider to dismiss as apologetic work that does not fit this myth for the simple reason that the myth itself at some deep, perhaps unarticulated level, serves to warrant work that fits it.

A final thought about the nature of progress in Mormon thought: Suppose that I am interested in using Mormon thought and theology to think about or discuss some new problem. If I look to the existing materials there is nothing that really focuses on what I am interested in. So what do I do? If I used "objectivity" as my criteria for good discussion of Mormonism, I would be forced to recapitulate the hodge-podge of half-articulated ideas on my subject and call it a day. Suppose instead, however, that I decide to take the half-articulated ideas and fully articulate them. I then push the implications of those ideas, find connections and analogies, and -- viola! -- I have a theory with a bit more power and insight. To an outsider, this will look like apologetics. And in a sense it is. It looks rather like an interpretivist theory of law, where I decide a new "hard case" by treating the law like a chain novel in which I am writing a new chapter. I write the new chapter so that the novel as a whole is the "best" novel that it can be. This is apologetic, however, it also may be the only way of pushing the old ideas and precedents forward in a way that does not do intellectual violence to them. If you do this in Mormon studies, it will look as though you are taking Mormonism and dressing it up as something "better" than it "really is." (This was the charge made against McMurrin when he did his philosophical analysis of Mormon theology in the 1960s.) From an internal perspective, however, it is simply an attempt to use the latent resources of one's theology and history to discuss a new topic. It is a kind of intellectual progress. The problem is that Mormonism is so young and has of yet fully articulated discussions on so few issues, that virtually ALL interesting Mormon thought will take this "apologetic" form.

Friday, November 07, 2003

Last night Terryl Givens spoke at the Harvard Divinity School. He was chosen to speak by the HDS Latter-day Saint Society because of his reputation as a good scholar and the respect he has from faithful Latter-day Saints. This balance isn’t so easy to find. There are many successful Mormon scholars who are well respected within their field. But when they have something to say about Mormonism, they speak only to other Mormons. Much of the Mormon intelligentsia who does engage the outside world about Mormonism is either explicitly involved in apologetics, or harbors some hostility to the Church and its teachings. This division tends to perpetuate itself by leaving little room in between. At some point many LDS intellectuals find that there is a parting of the ways, and they must choose sides to defend their faith from malicious attackers who represent the outside world or expose its soft underbelly for destruction in order to gain respect and acceptance in the outside world.

There have been a few to have successfully navigated these waters when they speak about Mormonism, who have been able to achieve success and respect in both the world of Mormonism and world outside of Mormonism. Of course, no one will be universally liked, and extremists at either end will tend to dislike anyone who is not firmly within their own camp. Despite this, I think Terryl Givens, among others has achieved this kind of success. But no one has quite mastered it yet.

The Yale Conference on Mormonism demonstrated this to me. Many of the non-LDS respondents challenged what they understood to be claims of Mormon exceptionalism, wanting to show that Mormonism wasn’t as unique as it was being claimed to be by the LDS presenters. However, to my ear this claim wasn’t being made and if it weren’t for the persistence of this episode in nearly every one of the sessions, I wouldn’t have begun to see the problem. It seems that when Mormons speak of LDS doctrine or theology, the tone is often seen as “apologetic” by outsiders.

Last night was no exception. A close non-LDS friend of mine characterized Givens’ talk as “apologetic.” Perhaps it was. It celebrated in how Mormonism had closed the “sacred distance” that “other Christian religions” had seen as central to their religious experience. It was enthusiastic, and perhaps even triumphalistic. As a Mormon, I loved it. I tend to agree with most of what Givens says about Mormon metaphysics (though I think I disagree with him about the room left for myth and mystery…I will blog on this later). Maybe my friend was sensing in Givens’ talk was that he had delivered a theological discourse, not a theoretical treatise on the nature of Mormon heresy.

So why does this happen, even to LDS scholars who are most attentive to this very problem? Does the blame lie squarely on us? When faithful Mormons speak about Mormonism, are they inevitably involved in a theological defense of faith? Or is it that non-Mormons’ perceptions of Mormons are so strong that they lead them to interpret any positive (or at least not critical) evaluation of Mormonism as “apologetic”? I do not know the answer to this question, but I see it as a major hurdle to the success of a viable field Mormon Studies that engages academics regardless of belief.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

THE EGAN CASE: The Journal of Discourses, that glorious bubbling mass of untamed theological matter, contains in its first volume the account of a trial. (See JD 1:95-103) The trial occurred during the 1851 October Term of the Territorial Court in Salt Lake City. Howard Egan murdered a man named James Monroe who had stayed the winter in Utah on his way to California. While sojourning among the Saints, Monroe apparently seduced Egan's wife and got her pregnant. Monroe then high tailed it out of Zion with Egan in hot pursuit. Egan found and shot Monroe. At trial Egan's attorney was none other than Apostle George A. Smith, who had just been called to the bar. The Journal of Discourse records his speech, which is a legally confused argument amounting a pure appeal to jury nullification. "If Howard Egan did kill James Monroe," he told the jury, "it was in accordance with the established principles of justice known in these mountains." It is my understanding that George A.'s rather bloody minded speech in the case has been used as one of the exhibits illustrating the "Early Mormon Culture of Violence."

What is interesting to me, however, is that the Journal of Discourses also includes the speech the Judge Zarubell Snow gave in charging the jury. Snow was also a Mormon, and was one of the only trained Mormon attorneys in Utah at the time. (George A. seems to have read a bit of Blackstone and hung out his shingle.) Egan was charged under a federal law, which is what make's Snow's instructions interesting. He first instructed the jury to ignore appeals for nullification, charging them to apply the law. He then stated that if they found that the murder was committed in the jurisdiction of the Territory of Utah that they must find Egan not guilty because the federal law applied only in areas under exclusively federal jurisdiction.. If the murder was performed outside the territory in the vast unorganized territory between Utah and the Missouri, then the jury could apply the federal law. This is interesting for two reasons. First, to my knowledge it is the earliest statement of the Mormon legal theory advanced a generation during the anti-polygamy battles, namely that the constitution limited the power of the federal government to pass criminal laws for the territories. Second, Snow presented the issue in the form of an instruction to the jury, rather than as a legal holding as to the scope of the law or the jurisdiction of the court. Two decades later, the attorneys for George Reynolds would use the same tactic in his polygamy prosecution, putting the issue to the jury rather than making a demurrer (ie a legal challenge) to the court. Robert Baskin, a prominent anti-Mormon lawyer, was later to use this fact to argue that Mormon authorities were lying when they claimed that there had been a deal regarding Reynold's case with the government. According to Baskin, the if there really had been a deal, Reynolds would have filed a demurrer to prosecution rather than making his plea to the jury. The Egan case, however, suggests that the jury procedure had antecedents in Utah jurisprudence.

Friday, October 24, 2003

JESUS IN FILM- CNN reports that members of the cast of Mel Gibson's Passion keep getting struck by lightning. It must be because of the film's gross historical innaccuracies!

Friday, October 10, 2003

MORMONS AND PURITANS: I have been doing a bit of reading of late on Puritan theories of natural law. Obviously, there are lots and lots of parellels between Puritanism and Mormonism, but I ran into one that I thought was particularlly striking. In 1659, a Puritan by the name of John Eliot wrote a book entitled The Christian Commonwelath; or, The Civil Policy of the Rising Kingdom of Jesus Christ. He argued, inter alia, that Christian people should "chuse unto themselves Rulers of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens, who shall govern according to the pure, holy, righteous, perfect and good Law of God . . . ." He goes on to explain how the "chusing" should work. Groups of ten would chose a leader. The leaders of the groups of ten would then choose leaders of groups of 50, and so on up to the top. (He is vague about who assigns people to the initial groups.) Interestingly, Brigham Young received a revelation on January 14, 1847 setting out an almost identical governing structure for the Camp of Israel. (See D&C 136) The basic model for both systems was, of course, Moses and the children of Israel during the Exodus. (See Exodus 18:21) What is striking, however, is the different way in which authority was distributed within the Mormon and Puritan systems. In the Puritan system it filters up from the bottom, while in the Mormon system everything is "under the direction of the Twelve Apostles." (D&C 135:3)

A niave analysis of the difference would be to see the Puritans as democratic and the Mormons as authoritarian. However, I don't think this is what is going on. For starters, the Puritans saw "democratie" as a purely pajoritive terms, and were self-consciously yearning for a "true theocratie." Eliot's system clearly presupposes that it is only members of the church who are doing the "chusing." Membership in the church, in turn, was based on a showing that one had discovered signs of election to salvation in the strict Calvinist sense. Furthermore, there was none of the emotional moment of grace stuff that one would find in the later, evangelical versions of Calvinism. For Puritans election was a serious matter of discovering the evidences of predestined salvation not of verifying a a moment of being saved. The result was earnest pyschological analysis by the elders of the church rather than ephusive salvific experience. Thus, the "chusing" by the people was a form of God working his will, since it was only those predestined to election by Him who did the "chused." The Mormons also saw their structure as a way of God working in the world. The difference was that God works through historically located revelation to prophets. In constrast to the predestination of the Puritans -- which has already occured and since God is eternal and atemporal, strictly speaking has both always been occuring and never been occuring -- the Mormon revelation occurs at a particular time to a particular people. God's dealings with the world takes on a much more active and interactive aspect. (Incidentally, the Mormons followed more closely the pattern of Exodus than did the Puritans on precisely this point.) The old Puritan psychology still lingers within Mormonism, but it takes on a different form. Where the Puritans plumbed their souls looking for signs of predestined grace, Mormons plumbed (and still plumb) their souls looking for the spirit of revelation and the "flowing of pure intelligence." Interestingly, the religious pyschology of both faiths gave rise to a rich diarist tradition. Puritans wrote voluminous diaries chronicling their search within their souls for grace, while Mormons wrote voluminous diaries chronicling the revelations of God to them and their obedience to those revelations.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

MORMON FEMINISM- Peggy Fletcher Stack just published an article in the SL Trib titled "Where have all the Mormon Feminists Gone?" located here. You all should read it all the way through...I think you'll be surprised at how close we are to the heartbeat of Mormon feminism! The article describes the changing face of Mormon feminism throughout the church's history. Most significant is that it describes a softening of both feminists and the church. It also notes the difficulties with the term 'feminism' in today's academy. The central issue of women serving in priesthood leadership has yet to be resolved to the satisfaction of many feminist thinkers, but it does seem that on almost every other question the church has made great strides.

I think that the article does a great job of describing the status questiones, but does little to describe what the future of Mormon feminism is. A few years ago, when Claudia Bushman spoke at Harvard, she predicted a retrenchment from much of the progress the church has made recently, expecting an increased focus on "family values" in order to increase family sizes to compensate for diminishing converts. This may be true, but I suspect that many of the values held by today's LDS women on social issues, such as career, education, and family roles, as well as ecclesiastical issues, such as making women present in general conference, and expectations of providing input in local church matters, will be increasingly hard to reverse.

Saturday, October 04, 2003

Esteemed Elders,

It has been too long. Once again I apologize for not having frequented these halls more often. I would like to thank the Lawyer for posting the link to Loomis’ paper. The statistical issues involved in forecasting are certainly interesting. However, the biggest theoretical problem that one faces is not in the math (barring complex interaction effects and the like), but interpreting the data that serves as ones baseline assumptions. To put it bluntly, forecasting requires a good understanding of where you are and what forces are at work at this moment before you can say anything about the future. Yet as we all know those are notoriously difficult questions to answer. To be safe one would really like about 20 years of hindsight, but this sort of exercise never gives you that opportunity. So is LDS growth in a temporary slump (say, because of the immense resources that have been directed towards temple building), or has there been a fundamental change in our growth pattern (because the children of converts often become inactive, and rarely go on missions)? Who knows. If forecasting was easy and reliable Loomis’ and myself would both be stock-market millionaires rather than social scientists. The fact that neither of us are millionaires (to the best of my knowledge) would indicate that sometimes these tools are not as sharp as we would like to think.

I’m not really surprised by Loomis’ findings, and I’ve been thinking some of the same things myself for a while. I think he is low-balling his figure (mostly because we disagree on when the geometric growth phase will/did end). But in the long run I think that whether there are 30, 100 or 200 million Mormons in 2080 makes precious little difference. Here is the reason why.

The prevailing trend among LDS futurologist is to examine the future in terms of how many Mormons there will be. This is typical of our communities self-absorbed approach to history. If this is how one frames the issue then Stark’s original projections seem very exciting. We really would be the first new world religion since Islam (even if on a much smaller scale than any previous ‘world religion’).

Very few of these futurologists remember that there are groups other than Mormons in this world, nor do they take the next step and ask how some of these are going to be faring in the year 2080. Often (though not always) basic demographic trends, like the projected explosion in the population of the global south are ignored.

So what will the world look like as we pass the mid-mark of this century, and how hospitable will it be to Mormonism and its unique understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Once again, these are open questions that are going to be very difficult to answer. A huge amount rests on the validity of basic assumptions like the accuracy of the UN’s population projections for different areas of the world. But some people have started to ask these questions.

First among them was Phillip Jenkins in his work, published by the Oxford UP, entitled The Next Christendom: the coming global Christianity. Jenkins is a prominent Catholic apologist and respected professor of Religion at the University of Pennsylvania for those of you who are unfamiliar with his work. This book begins with a brief history of Christian missionary efforts going back to the middle ages, which should be required reading for anyone who has ever asked questions like “I wonder why the church is growing so fast in Ghana (or Hong Kong or Brazil ect…) but not in X,Y or Z.”

He then explores the unique nature of the emerging Christianity of the global south (also a fascinating read). Two sets of projections are offered based on slightly different sets of basic assumptions about population growth rates and shifts in denominational success. Finally, the volume closes with a rather paranoid rant about how the Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists (sic!) will be coming to get us. While this may in fact turn out to be true, Jenkins indulges in the fallacy of “worst case” reasoning here and I would recommend just skipping this section and drawing your own conclusions about where the future fault-lines of cultural conflict are likely to be. Your guess is literally as good as his.

So what is the world going to look like in 2025? There are likely to be well over 1 billion Catholics (probably more like 1.5) even controlling for their declining position of dominance in South America. There will also be well over 1 billion Pentecostals. There will be at least 300 million members of “new religious movements” in Africa and Latin America (highly intercultrated but basically Christian groups). Additionally there will likely be another 1.5-1.7 billion Muslims, mostly dominating the Middle East and South Asia, but also making impressive gains in South East Asia. America is likely to be the only truly Christian nation in the northern hemisphere (one can already argue that this is the case).

The new face of Christendom will be southern, poor and very (very) conservative compared to what we are used to in America. Good luck to all the liberals who thought that the growing success of the missionary effort was going to lead to a more liberal church. Aside from the race issue, I expect to see retrenchment in all denominations that experience growth (look at the Pope’s last batch of Cardinals for instance).

Nor is this the sort of world that is going to be really happy to see young white men showing up on their doorstep and asking them if they want to know more about the Book of Mormon. I don’t think that the Lawyer needs to worry about restoring the “tension” between us and world. The dispute with the relatively mellow evangelicals of the North as to whether Mormons are “Christians” will be nothing compared to the problems we are going to be facing from Pentecostals and ultra-conservative catholic bishops in Africa and Latin America in the next couple of decades. Inter-community religious violence is increasingly common in many areas of the world, and we would be naïve to think that it could never happen to us (again). Though as was already pointed out this sort of opposition can certainly be played to our advantage over the long run.

But to return to my basic point, even if Stark’s original projections were right, and we followed the most optimistic growth projections we have, the entire LDS church will still be smaller than some of the more noteworthy Philippine or Chilean cults that Jenkins reviews in his book. Whether we have 30 million members, or 200 million members, we are still going to be in a distinctly minority position in what is likely to be an increasingly hostile and closed world. This is the eventuality that we need to be planning for.