When my friend Craig Harline suggested a few months ago that I do some guest blogging on Times and Seasons, I was initially enthusiastic; but on second thought my enthusiasm waned. It became clear to me that I probably wouldn’t have much to contribute to this conversation. And the main reason I wouldn’t have much to contribute is that I’m largely ignorant in matters of Mormon thinking. So I would be like the naive newcomer to a conversation who says things that other people have already thoroughly hashed over.
And why should I be ignorant about this part of Mormonism? After all, I was “raised in the Church,” went on a mission, and graduated from BYU. Since then I’ve rarely missed a Sacrament Meeting, have made substantial monetary contributions, and have usually watched at least one session of general conference. But in recent years I’ve missed out on the no doubt scintillating discussions in Gospel Doctrine or priesthood meeting, in part because for about nine of the last ten years my ward calling (in two different wards) has been Primary pianist. (That may tell you something.) And I long ago left off reading LDS-type publications, whether general and official, meaning The Ensign, or more academic, such as Sunstone and Dialogue– which I assume are still in business? Or (sorry!) Times and Seasons.
Nor can I sincerely say that this lapse is among the many things in my life that I regret having done, or not done. How to explain this? I think what happened to me is this: I’ve spent much of my life in universities, and so I’ve naturally been acquainted with a fair number of LDS academics. I admire many of these people, both as scholars and as human beings. Some of them I consider good friends. We’ve had lots of valuable discussions. But with all this experience, I don’t think I’ve encountered a model attractive to me of– how should I put it?– specifically Mormon intellectual or academic activity.
I stress the “to me.” People engage intellectually with Mormonism in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes. Let me mention four that I’ve observed. There’s the internally-directed person who is just interested in Mormon issues for their own sake– Mormon history or Mormon theology– and who doesn’t really try to bring his or her studies into conversation with the wider, non-Mormon world. That’s fine, I think. Given a free decade, I can imagine that I might devote myself to Mormon history. But as it happens, that hasn’t been my calling, or career. Scarce time and resources, you know.
Then there’s the Mormon apologist whose mission is to vindicate Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon or whatever against external criticism or incredulity. This is fine too, I suppose. Apologetics is a longstanding and honorable profession. Although I confess that what I’ve seen of Mormon apologetics doesn’t inspire in me much admiration. Often it seems to me to exude a kind of narrowness and defensiveness and lack of complete candor. I’m speaking from a small sample, though, and I may be off-base.
Closely related to the apologist but not quite the same is the person who wants to use distinctively Mormon perspectives and insights to propose useful views or solutions that aren’t available without these distinctive perspectives and insights. Truman Madsen, from whom I took a class as an undergraduate, was an example of this kind of thinker. This sort of enterprise is in a sense more positive and less defensive than ordinary apologetics– because it tries to make a positive contribution, useful to people outside Mormonism– but it is like apologetics in that it attempts an indirect or comparative vindication of Mormonism. “Aha!” the idea seems to be. “Here’s a problem (the ‘problem of evil,’ or God’s foreknowledge, or whatever) that you all can’t solve, and we can! We must have a Truth that you don’t have.”
In principle, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with this sort of activity. For myself, though, I have to say that I’m usually not favorably impressed with these efforts or demonstrations. I also think that in the world as it currently stands, the most crucial divides are not among Christian sects, or between Christians and non-Christians, but rather between people who believe there is some sort of order or purpose or design in the cosmos and those who adhere to more secular and naturalistic worldviews. So it hasn’t seemed sensible or prudent to devote myself to the old-fashioned inter-religion competitions. I’m sure that my Mormon upbringing and activities, and the beliefs I’ve derived in part from Mormonism, have influenced my own thinking and writing immensely. But I’m not sure it’s the distinctively Mormon aspect that has been important, as opposed to what Mormons share with Christians generally, and devout Jews, and . . . .
Finally, some of the LDS academics I’ve met seem devoted to making Mormonism more acceptable (to themselves anyway) and more respectable (to their own peers and associates anyway) by working to bring the Church and its culture more into line with the ideas and values that prevail in, among other places, the modern academy. A lot might be said about this; I’ll only say that for me, this is easily the least attractive and admirable of the various Mormon intellectual projects. A generation after the ship taken by mainline Protestantism knocked holes in its own bottom and began slowly to sink, should we pride ourselves on our enlightened or progressive vision by rushing to get on board that sinking ship? It seems just a bit . . .well, pathetic.
So I’ve encountered Mormon academics who are very good people, and also who are very good scholars, but I haven’t come upon a model of distinctively Mormon intellectual activity that has engaged my sense of what my own calling and abilities are. And my conclusion– a very tentative one– has been that Mormonism contributes to the world today less by its distinctive ideas or theology (although some of its valuable ideas that were once routine may be becoming more distinctive all the time) than by its embodiment of a way of life. I may be wrong about this (I usually am), but it’s why I happily participate in Primary but haven’t devoted a great deal of time and energy to studying LDS publications and literature.