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.