As readers of this blog already know, I have a tendency to whine a great deal about the quality Mormon discussions. I have even been accused of being boring on the subject, which is no doubt a fair enough criticism.
I think that my fundamental problem is the complacency that I see in Mormonism. Frankly, I donâ€™t think that this is an ideological problem. I think that it is a Mormon problem. Most members of the Church are â€“ for better or for worse â€“ basically intellectually complacent about the Gospel. They are, by and large, content to toil away at their best attempts at living righteous lives and expect little more than the sustenance of â€œsimple gospel truthsâ€? that unfortunately slip rather easily into the endless repetition of vacuous cliches and a sort of self-satisfied contentment in oneâ€™s supposed knowledge.
However, it is not clear to me that the dominant lines of discussion criticizing this attitude are all that much less complacent. The Mormon intellegensia seems largely captured by its own set of ruts. (I hope that the phrase â€œMormon intelligentsiaâ€? doesnâ€™t carry â€œso-called intellectualsâ€? overtones. I am not talking about â€œthem.â€? I am talking about you and me.) All too often this discussion amounts to a routinized set of complaints about those â€œotherâ€? Mormons â€“ e.g. they lack curiosity, they wonâ€™t think about issues, they treat every question as a spiritual crisis and attack on the Church, etc. â€“ and a rather predictable set of worries about the Church â€“ it is too authoritarian, it is too patriarchal, it is too Republican, why wonâ€™t it provide more access to the Church archives, etc. etc. Once one discovers the existence of this conversation and glides around the cocktail party a couple of times you realize that it too is largely a set of comforting Mormon clichÃ©s, albeit of a somewhat different flavor.
It seems to me that there is very little discontent with this state of affairs. There is â€“ to be sure â€“ a certain amount of discontent with the Church, but this is not what I am talking about. Rather I am talking about a willingness to be discontented with the ritualized form of Mormon discontent along with the ritualized form of Mormon contentment. I am talking about discontent with the fact that we collectively have not produced something better.
I am awed by the life and thinking of B.H. Roberts. I am less impressed by his intellectual independence (although this was impressive) or even the quality of his thinking and writing (which to be honest is of uneven quality). Rather, I am impressed by his ambition and his recognition that Mormon thinking (of all stripes) was basically crude but full of possibilities. Robertsâ€™s reaction to this insight, however, was niether simple frusration with Mormonism or a retreat into simple pietism. Rather, I at least sense in his writings a tremendous sense of adventure and opprotunity. In the absence of Mormon though, he got to make it up! Of course, this is an exaggeration, but there are few areas of Mormon thinking about history or theology that he didnâ€™t in some way impose a structure on where there had been no structure before.
The current complacency of Mormons (and the ambition-deadening effects of academic specialization) seems to preclude anything as grand as Robertsâ€™ projects. Yet I suspect thatt we are desperately in need of such ambition. That fact of the matter, it seems to me, is that virtually all forms of Mormon thought are incredibly underdeveloped. Pick almost any area and you can write on an almost entirely blank slate. Suppose we take Rodney Stark seriously and we think that Mormonism actually is destined to be a new worldwide religion (although perhaps not on Starkâ€™s exponential-growth time table). If that is right, then Mormon intellectuals are in roughly the same position as figures like Origien, Al-Shafi, Rabbi Akiva, or Ibn Sina. In other words, they stand at the point where a prophetic religion has survived its first violent encounter with the world and become accommodated to its own survival and now becomes self-aware and reflective. It is an opportunity for intellectual creativity that only seems to show up every millennia or so.
Frankly, I donâ€™t think that our discussions have been up to the task. Instead we spend time worrying about whether or not good Mormons can also be good Democrats or all of the ways in which our seminary teachers have disappointed our more mature intellectual expectations. There are the seeds of something worth dignifying with the name of Mormon thought in there, but they germinate with painful slowness. More often, it seems that the intellectual tasks faced by Mormonism are simply beyond our courage or our ability. It is much easier to stick to the things we already know.