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.