I went to this past weekend’s conference not so much to hear any of the particular talks as to see what sort of exchange they formed. Interreligious dialogue is one of the most difficult things there is, to do well. Here are some notes on the conference as an occasion for such dialogue, and a stepping stone toward better dialogue in the future.
That this would be an interreligious dialogue was evidently part of the planners’ intent, based on the pattern of affiliations in the program. The first speaker in three, and the last speaker in all four of the daytime sessions was Mormon, with non-Mormon speakers in the middle (the Friday evening session with Elder Oaks was quite different). The positions of the speakers on the question of whether Joseph was actually a prophet of God thus seem to have been a key factor in the planning of the program.
Surely it would be difficult for that question to be far from anyone’s mind, no matter what. After all, why are we holding a conference on Joseph Smith if not because he claimed to be a prophet, and millions since have either believed or disbelieved him? Further, as Mormons, we are called “to stand as witnesses of God at all times”. Yet productive dialogue requires that most of the conversation go on at some distance from this question. Further, the venue on Capitol Hill called for a certain neutrality about religious claims.
It seems to me that in any cooperative endeavor, success requires that the participants feel they are working toward a goal they share, even if some of them also have goals not shared by all. A sense of shared purpose was sometimes present, and sometimes not, at this conference. Douglas Davies asked in the last session, “What exactly are we doing here?” I remember this part a bit differently from Ronan, but as Davies went on, “I will not be involved in apologetics,” it was clear that part of the question on his mind was what part apologetics (i.e. arguing in favor of faith claims) was playing in the conference. Jack Welch had aptly observed, near the midpoint of the conference, that the jury will always be hung on whether Joseph was a prophet, or whether the Book of Mormon is really an ancient text. It seems, then, that in the long run, success in interreligious dialogue will have to be based on its serving a purpose other than leading to one conclusion or another on whether Joseph was a prophet of God.
Here is a summary of the first session, with some thoughts on how it worked as a dialogue. I hope to post something similar on later sessions, if I have time.
The title of the first session, “Joseph Smith in his Own Time,” suggests a focus on Joseph’s 19th century context. Yet Richard Bushman argued that Joseph Smith must be understood in light of a much larger slice of the world: “His mind ranged far beyond his own time and place.” Bushman gave an overview of historical work attempting to explain Joseph as a product of the early 19th-century U.S., and acknowledged these are sometimes “ingenious”, but argued that this style of history has “reached the end of the line”. We must take account of how richly Joseph engaged ancient and “transnational” themes, as recent analyses such as Jan Shipps’ and Harold Bloom’s have done. Further, our histories must not merely objectify him, but to be adequate they must also comprise his own self-understanding. In the latter portion of his talk, Bushman traced how Joseph’s self-understanding as a prophet might have taken shape through his experiences over the years. Although we believers at least tend to read the end into the beginning retrospectively, Joseph learned about his role bit by bit. How challenging it must have been for a sincere person to step into that role! (I might add, if Moses and Enoch hesitated, what about Joseph Smith?)
Dialogue assessment: Bushman’s points about the inadequacy of reductionistic accounts of Joseph are welcome to those who believe he is a true prophet. His points about Joseph’s self-understanding show how reasonable it is to understand Joseph as a sincere, reasonable human being, and cut against any understanding of him as a fraud or madman. Believers in Joseph as a prophet can thus find both illumination and support in Bushman’s talk. However, strictly speaking Bushman was arguing that Joseph is a more interesting and appealing figure than certain reductionist histories make him, not arguing in any direct way that Joseph must be a prophet. His paper thus welcomes a broad audience and avoids unnecessary polarization. Mormons and non-Mormons both can agree with what he says, without compromising on their faith-claims.
Responding to Bushman’s talk were Robert Remini, Richard Hughes, and Grant Underwood. Remini claimed, “Joseph Smith is the quintessential American,” and supported this claim by referring to particular features of Joseph’s life. Remini suggested that a large part of the Church’s success abroad may be due to its Americanness: “Foreigners have been going for things American since the beginning.” Remini did not claim, however, that histories of Joseph as a 19th-century American have succeeded in explaining him, and urged that historians need to do more, particularly to explain his success in founding a robust and growing movement.
Dialogue assessment: Both affable and perceptive, Remini added to Bushman’s picture, giving it a bit of his own spin. No deep disagreement expressed. Remini didn’t seem to feel any need to take a position on whether Joseph was a prophet or not, or say anything that suggested one answer or another to that question.
Hughes took a subtly different approach. Comparing Joseph to other Restorationist figures of his time, including Alexander Campbell and Anne Lee (founder of the Shakers movement), Hughes seemed to be arguing that Joseph was only at the top of a broad bell curve. The closest comparison was between Smith and Campbell (whom Sidney Rigdon had been heavily influenced by, as came up, for example, in Noel Reynold’s paper on the Lectures on Faith delivered at the March ’05 SMPT conference). Smith and Campbell agreed on some key teachings (e.g. need for restoration of church, for adult baptism, by immersion); perhaps the biggest difference can be understood as a difference between Campbell’s Enlightenment Rationalism and Smith’s Romanticism. Smith’s influence as a prophet cannot be understood merely by appeal to a 19th-century history. He drew on the powerful Biblical narrative, a cosmic narrative of creation, fall, enslavement, wandering in the desert, and redemption through Christ. But of course, lots of people have drawn on the power of the Biblical narrative. So overall, Hughes seemed clearly to be arguing that Joseph can be adequately explained without supposing that he was actually a prophet of God.
Dialogue assessment: Hughes argued firmly, in a way that seemed designed to reduce Joseph to a product of his time plus access to the Bible, but did not hit us over the head with this conclusion–I don’t think he even actually stated it. A little bit of a polemical frame of mind perhaps, but he made his point in a gentlemanly, measured way. His own view on whether Joseph was a prophet seemed to play a role implicitly in his choice of what topics to discuss, but one didn’t need to agree with him to find his points interesting and illuminating. Further, he showed finesse by making his case while agreeing with much of Bushman’s point. He did not need to reject Bushman’s call for a “transnational” understanding of Joseph; he merely suggested that the transnational context for understanding Joseph was one available to anyone of Joseph’s time and place. Hughes thus provided a fine example of how to discuss differences gracefully, without compromising one’s own convictions.
Underwood did not have to do much clean-up, if that was part of his job as the final respondent, since everything said that far was compatible with Joseph’s being a prophet, or not. Underwood expanded on Bushman’s point that Joseph needs to be understood in a transnational context. For example, he compared Joseph’s work in bringing forth ancient texts to a Tibetan Buddhist practice of bringing forth texts called “Termas” which are said to have been written by Buddhist sages long ago, then hidden in jars to be brought forward later, to refresh the tradition. Some Termas are not claimed to be based on any existing text, but are called “mind Termas” — reminiscent of the Book of Moses. Underwood also mentioned how a Danish historian is comparing Joseph Smith with Kierkegaard.
Dialogue assessment: Underwood’s talk, too, could be appreciated regardless of whether one believes Joseph was a prophet.
So, overall, Session 1 went very well. I would have liked to see more overt disagreement; it was a little bit of a love-fest with everyone agreeing that there are all kinds of ways to tell illuminating stories about Joseph Smith. The disagreements one could pursue most constructively, though, would be on something other than whether Joseph was a true prophet. The participants have spent too long already making up their minds on that, and largely for reasons that would be better discussed in a more personal setting. One does hope, though, that a dialogue that deepens our understanding of Joseph would make us more likely to reach the right conclusions about his divine calling.