[Times & Seasons welcomes the first in a pair of posts from Ralph Hancock this week, who previously guested with us in 2010]
The recent unpleasantness at BYU’s Maxwell Institute has, the reader will have noticed, triggered much comment on the internet, including celebrations in some quarters over the supposed demise or at least eclipse of certain defenders of the faith at the Institute —characterized by some as apologists — who have been willing over the years to call out arguments they see as weakly reasoned and hold critics of the Church to account for their claims. Although I do not know enough to assert that my friends at the Institute have always been right or have always succeeded in striking the most appropriate tone, it will surprise no one to learn that I appreciate a spirited defense, when it is judicious and well-founded, and that I expect that celebrations over developments at the Institute by critics are likely premature.
Happily, however, the upheaval has also sparked some genuinely thoughtful reflections on the past and future of “apologetics,” particularly in relation to the emerging academic field of “Mormon Studies.” Here I attempt a small contribution to such reflections.
A persistent theme in a number of these online reflections has been the idea that, while an “apologetic” style associated with FARMS and owing much to the influence of the formidable Hugh Nibley may have had its uses in an earlier day, it is now, for a variety of reasons, time to move on to the more irenic and respectable discourse of Mormon Studies. Let me confess at the outset that I am a licensed practitioner of neither form, but only, I hope, a moderately well-informed consumer of both. Thus I have learned much of value from the interventions of those qualified scholars who have commented from the inside on the relation between the two forms and on their intersecting histories. My intellectual experience and interests incline me more to attend to the intersection of religion and politics, the latter broadly understood to include the moral constitution of society, and it is with this concern in mind that I would venture a few observations on the Apologetics/Mormon Studies discussion.
Let me begin by agreeing with the sensible observation made by a number of writers already that there is obviously much that is good and intellectually interesting that can be done within both forms of discourse. Still, I am struck by what appears to be a broad consensus among many younger scholars that there is now, and ought to be, a movement in the intellectual discussion of LDS beliefs and culture from a style that openly defends LDS commitments (“apologetics”) towards approaches that somehow bracket “truth claims” in order to enter into the more diverse and academically respectable conversation of “Mormon Studies”.
Of course a provisional bracketing of particular truth claims is just another way to say “thinking.” I must be willing in a sense to bracket my particular beliefs in order to enter into and thus to understand any philosopher’s argument. Plato, for example, tries to make sense of our moral, political and metaphysical condition without any reference to a personal God or to a Savior, and I can learn much by forgiving him these oversights and following his arguments as far as I can, even when they seem to lead me away from my Christian beliefs. At the very least, Plato’s consuming interest in the Truth is admirable and instructive, and his very questions can inspire us, even if must find his answers incomplete. But a different problem arises in engaging much modern scholarship, which tends to be based on the assumption that some regional “truth,” say “historical” or “psychological” can be examined by definitively bracketing the notion of a more existentially authoritative, higher Truth, religious or philosophical. Such notions are relegated to the realm purely “personal,” that is, subjective and altogether optional.
This is not to say that there is never anything to be gained by engaging scholarship characterized more or less by this definitive bracketing of all authoritative truth claims. Two admirable examples of faithful scholarship come to mind in this connection: Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling and Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon. I will save a discussion of the latter (a book I believe cannot be praised highly enough) for another occasion and focus on the former. Richard Bushman’s justly celebrated biography of Joseph Smith presents itself as accepting the norms of professional historians that require the resolute bracketing (if not the simple dismissal) of questions of religious truth. Bushman does not take it as his business in this book to be making the case for Joseph Smith’s Truth claims. Indeed many controversial and problematic features of Smith’s life and work are set forth quite plainly, and without any pretension to disposing of all difficulties. Bushman confesses his own standpoint as a believer early in the book, but he strives to do the work of an historian in a way that all good historians will be able to appreciate.
Was Professor Bushman’s “bracketing” successful? Certainly it was from my standpoint, since he wrote an immensely engaging and informative book, one that left me with some troubling issues, but that overall strengthened my belief in the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. Was it successful from the other side of the brackets, so to speak — that is, for those secular historians whom Bushman was hoping to engage? I have my doubts whether Professor Bushman’s work has received the professional credit it deserves. My sense is that, precisely because the author was “provisional” in his bracketing, he did not succeed in overcoming suspicions of many of his professional peers that he was (still) an apologist for Mormonism, and therefore not a truly “objective” historian. This is a case that seems to me to illustrate the difficulties involved in bracketing.
Thus I can understand and even, up to a point, endorse the attractions of a provisional bracketing of our religious beliefs for scholarly purposes, but I think it is important to be aware of the risks involved in catching what appears to be a powerful wave.
First, we see much of the current pleading against apologetics and for Mormon Studies as patently generational with a progressive accent. A young generation may well stir itself to great intellectual exertions by imagining the opening up of new possibilities not realized by their predecessors. The wielding of a theoretical “cutting edge” is a practically unavoidable trope in an intellectual world shaped so powerfully by modern technological science, an endeavor that progresses from one model or paradigm to the next as it produces tangible and materially productive advances. Of course the evidence of progress is necessarily more elusive, to say the least, where questions of humanity and divinity are concerned, but the glamour and the incentives associated with what is new are no less compelling. It would be unseemly for those of us who have lived long enough to have seen the passing of a number of new waves to deny to youth the incentives associated with innovation and the repudiation of the old ways. Still, for any youth who might be interested, we elders ought to be ready to point up the distinction between the new and the true. (This of course is by no means to identify the true with the old.)
The new possibilities of Mormon Studies, as these are expressed by aspiring practitioners of this emerging field, depend decisively on the deflection of the question of truth. The question that should be obvious is this: what does it mean to set aside the question of truth? And is this finally beneficial, or even really possible? Of course a certain bracketing of one’s own opinions or convictions is inherent in the intellectual enterprise itself. For example, I believe that liberal democracy is the best possible regime for modern societies, but I can bracket that belief in order to understand and appreciate Plato’s critique of the democratic regime and the democratic character. Perhaps this bracketing of my political convictions eventually affords me a more refined appreciation of constitutional liberal democracy insofar as it resists tendencies that worried Plato. Similarly, I may be convinced that the traditional Trinitarian creeds represent apostasy from original, authentic Christianity, but I may bracket this conviction to get inside the Trinitarian discourse and learn to appreciate its enduring appeal. If I can appreciate this appeal, then, without (presumably) becoming an orthodox Trinitarian, I will have learned something about theological discourse that ought to enrich my understanding of my own core beliefs. Or, to move from theological to more historical questions, I might bracket my orthodox understanding of the historicity of the Book of Mormon longer enough to consider genuinely interesting comparisons between, say, Nephi’s concerns and the concerns of nineteenth-century post-Calvinist Americans. I might well learn much from such comparisons (including, perhaps, something about the continuity of some central religious questions for the human spirit) by thus provisionally bracketing the ancient context of Nephi’s writing, but nothing that prevents me from removing the brackets and returning to my basic LDS beliefs. In both cases, then, the religious “answers” I believe in may be said to be the same as they were before my provisional “bracketing,” but they now appear in the light of questions that have been greatly enriched as a result of my being open to what were foreign possibilities.
If this provisional bracketing for the purpose of enriching exploration is what is involved in the new wave MS, then, I say, the more reflection and dialogue the better! But of course there is always the risk that the bracketing turns out to be more than provisional, that, having pursued our inquiry some distance, we find ourselves unable to re-connect our unfolding questions with the authoritative answers the Church provides. I do not know what to say about this risk, except that each seeker must assess it for himself, and be careful to strengthen his foundation in the answers (by study and obedient faith) at least as much as he develops his virtuosity in questioning. (Such sensitivity to the inherent risks would also condition the way such a seeker exposed others to the opportunities of provisional bracketing.) I am writing this — I can only write this — from the point of view of one who is grateful for the firm foundation in both plain evidence and spiritual guidance that the Lord has provided Latter-day Saints, and who has always been rewarded intellectually as well as spiritually (the distinction fades) by returning from his bracketing to the firm foundation of doctrines and covenants he shares with less philosophical (though often holier) saints.
I am not sure, however, that this kind of provisional bracketing is what many of the new and aspiring practitioners of MS have in mind. I read much in their accounts that suggests a welcome relief from the embarrassment of distinctive and challenging truth-claims, a hunger for “respectability,” and an eagerness to be part of some academic “mainstream.” Occasionally, a frank pragmatist among the up-and-coming avers that plain career incentives are an important factor in the adoption of an intellectual style. I have no reason to condemn such clear-sighted pragmatism; we all make certain compromises in order to pull down a paycheck; the search for truth cannot be aligned perfectly with the necessity to pay the bills – in fact, truth is infinitely more at risk in the truth-business (see: Priestcraft) than in simpler occupations. Thus I prefer a frank compromise with material necessity to the craving for respectability that is blind to its own material conditions. The respect for what is respectable, mainstream, prestigious, is not very far removed, after all, from power-worship — from a submission to dominant forces, at once moral and material.
This is not at all to say that what is considered respectable is never worthy of respect. On the contrary, what is “of good report” is often a good indication of what is indeed “praiseworthy” — but not infallibly so. In particular, it would be a mistake to identify the models and methodologies that prevail in modern academic discourse with the simple pursuit of truth. It would be naïve to assume a simple opposition between the “unfettered” pursuit of truth on the one (“secular”) hand and the non- or ir-rational cultivation of faith on the other. As my friend and (emeritus) colleague, David Bohn, has nicely argued at T&S, there is no morally or religiously “neutral” standpoint from which truth may be approached (which is not to say, I hasten to add, that all approaches are equally valid or equally irrational). An truly unfettered approach, that is, an approach that is authentically concerned with and open to Truth — to whole truth, to deep truth, to truth that includes the bearing of truth on the meaning of human existence, or the openness of human existence to truth — cannot afford to compartmentalize inquiry or to stipulate arbitrarily in advance what “methods” will be authorized. But of course such compartmentalization and stipulation is the very organizing principle of our academic disciplines, a principle that, having proved its utility or productivity in the hard sciences, has extended its authority over the social sciences and humanities as well. Whether this extension of the principle of methodical specialization to “disciplines” touching more directly on human existence has been “useful” or “productive” is debatable; certainly one might argue that inherently endless controversy and attendant troubles can be avoided by eliminating ultimate concerns from “scholarly” disciplines and relegating them to the realm of “religion” or other supposedly non-rational and thus purely private or “personal” commitments. It is clear, in any case, that questions of Truth understood as touching on ultimate religious and philosophical concerns tend, in the modern university (with some happy exceptions), to be systematically excluded — even, or especially, from departments of philosophy and of religion, or “religious studies.” (A university that aspires to be comprehensively religious, like BYU, is always tempted to oppose the compartmentalization of the secular university by giving religious conviction is own independent compartment.)
The risk is considerable, however, that all the prestige inherently and rightly associated with reason’s aspiration to Truth will attach itself to the specialized “secular” disciplines, despite the suppression of self-criticism concerning their own foundational assumptions. It is much easier for them to claim this prestige by criticizing the indemonstrable affirmations of religion or the insight embedded imperfectly in tradition than by undertaking the much harder and riskier work of examining their own indemonstrable assumptions. (Have we really come that far from the ambitions of those first BYU professors who, a century ago, returned from prestigious Eastern graduate programs with the ambition to show that “‘the fundamentals of religion could and must be investigated by extending the [empirical] method into the spiritual realm…”?)
We may agree, then, that universities, and the scholarly enterprise more generally, are about, or ought in principle to be about, the rational, critical, and therefore self-critical pursuit of truth, and that Mormon Studies ought to be included within such a pursuit, but is by no means evident that the modern secular academy is generally faithful to this aspiration. We tend to find there, not the provisional bracketing of particular Answers with a view to the further development of the most important Questions, but instead a resolute and definitive bracketing — a dismissal — of the Questions along with the Answers. To return to my earlier examples: comparative reflection on the Godhead is not pursued with a view to the truth concerning humanity and what transcends humanity, but only in order to fill out “objectively” the picture of varieties of the human religious imagination. Likewise, it will simply be assumed that any overlap between Nephi’s concerns and those of 19th-century Americans results from the 19th-century origins of the Book of Mormon, and that we are all, like Joseph Smith, products of our age. “Objectivity” here implies that the question “who/what is God?” which is bound up with the question “how should I live?” is permanently bracketed away.
(Continued on in Part II)
 Ernest L. Wilkinson, ed., Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years, vol. 1 (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1975), 415. Quoted in Boyd K. Packer, “Spiritual Orientation: Three Addresses, iii: The Snow White Birds,” available BYU website: http://president.byu.edu/documents/packer.htm
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