Integration

April 12, 2004 | 38 comments
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On Kristine’s “testimony” thread, Nate’s post and Steve’s reply raised a question about the relation of one’s religion to one’s intellectual life. My question is related to Kristine’s question about how to bear testimony, but I think it is slightly different. I’d like to pursue it in a meandering way.

As a philosophy professor at BYU, I find myself often asked something like “Do they let you really teach philosophy at BYU?” The answer is yes, and I’m not surprised by the question, given the reputation that philosophy has (mostly among those who don’t know much about it) and the reputation that BYU has (a reputation that ought to be more complicated than it often is). What I’m surprised by is the fact that most of those asking the question are LDS. Philosophy professors at other universities just assume, perhaps naively though for the most part correctly, that if we have a philosophy department, we teach philosophy like everyone else does. Members of the Church assume, also naively and for the most part incorrectly, that if we teach philosophy at BYU, then we must be subjected to censorship.

I have to confess that there is certainly an element of self-censorship among us. Each member of our department is a faithful Latter-day Saint, so it is unlikely that we would advocate something that undermines LDS faith. Nevertheless, we teach those things, and we teach them in much the same way that they are taught anywhere else. In almost thirty years of teaching at BYU no one has every told me that I couldn’t teach a particular thinker or topic nor that I had to teach some topic or other. Self-censorship is the only kind I’ve encountered so far.

I teach 19th and 20th century German and French philosophy, including Nietzsche, one of my favorites and someone for whom I have considerable sympathy, both intellectual and religious. I think one must read Nietzsche’s criticisms of Christianity carefully because it isn’t obvious how they relate to the beliefs and practices of faithful Christians. In fact, it isn’t obvious how to read Nietzsche at all. He is not only a careful stylist, he also takes great care not to make himself the model for others. As a result, I see Nietzsche as less threatening to believers than many do. But I don’t try to “baptize” Nietzsche, and I think my interpretation of his work is a legitimate, justifiable, philosophical interpretation. When I teach Nietzsche, I don’t just offer students a sanitized or a “pro-Mormon” version of him. The same is true of Heidegger and Gadamer, and of the French philosophers I’ve been teaching lately.

On the one hand, I don’t have any difficulty reconciling my faith with my philosophical interests, sometimes because I don’t see any relation between them. Of course I also understand that there are positions within the area of philosophy that I teach which many Latter-day Saints would find difficult to agree with. I also recognize that my philosophical understanding of LDS beliefs may well be idiosyncratic. Perhaps that is part of the reason I don’t think that belief is central to LDS religion: it is important only as part of the practice of religion, not in itself.

On the other hand, given the kinds of things I teach, I often see connections between what I’m doing philosophically and what I believe. Sometimes those connections are questions. For example, I have been reading the work of Jean-Luc Marion for the past several years. He is a contemporary French philosopher who is also a practicing Catholic. He argues that traditional Christian thinking about the relation of God to the world provides a model for how we can think about the relation of the mind to the world. (I won’t try to lay out his position here. For an overview, see “The Saturated Phenomenon,” in Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate, and “The Event, the Phenomenon, and the Revealed,” in Transcendence in Philosophy and Religion. The latter is somewhat more accessible than the former.) Marion’s discussion raises questions about our access to the world and about transcendence that I think are intellectually provocative precisely because they not only question the main stream of modern philosophy, at the same time, they question the unreflective view that I think LDS tend to have about such matters. For me Marion raises questions that I think LDS intellectuals need to think about, particularly in light of our very different understanding of the nature of God.

Thus, though I’ve taught the philosophy of religion only twice, I often see connections between what I’m doing philosophically and my religious beliefs, and I’ve moved more in the direction of writing about those connections within the last several years. However, I can’t always say that I see those connections—nor that I should—nor can I say that everyone in BYU’s philosophy department does or ought to. It isn’t clear what the connections are between Dan Graham’s work in ancient philosophy and LDS thought. The same can be said about Cody Carter’s work in the philosophy of medicine and, indeed, the work of most of the rest of the department. I assume their experience is much like mine. Work in the philosophy of language, contemporary metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, etc. is not likely to have obvious connections with LDS beliefs, and often the connections one sees aren’t directly relevant to teaching the material at hand. The only person in the department who thinks explicitly about the connections between philosophy and religion consistently and who often teaches about those connections is David Paulsen—whose specialty is the philosophy of religion.

So, if we are intellectuals of one kind or another—whether philosophers, poets, biblical scholars, economists, botanists, artists, musicians, or even lawyers of the sort that we find here at Times and Seasons—how do we integrate our intellectual lives and our religious lives? If we merely compartmentalize the various interests and pursuits in which we are engaged, we betray our religion as well as those interests and pursuits. But the connection between those things is often less than obvious and seldom easy to make sense of, and we run the danger of a falsifying each of them in our attempts at integration.

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38 Responses to Integration

  1. Steve Evans on April 12, 2004 at 5:07 pm

    Jim – great, great post.

    I wonder though if perhaps you’ve overstated things by saying, “If we merely compartmentalize the various interests and pursuits in which we are engaged, we betray our religion as well as those interests and pursuits.” I can safely tell you that my proxy statements and prospectuses have little to do with my religion. What’s more, I’m not convinced that the Lord particularly cares about what kind of work we do or our specialized fields of expertise. You have chosen a career that would tend to overlap to a larger degree with the Gospel’s domain; I would think that most academic pursuits would also have this tendency.

    I guess you’ve allowed for this criticism when you say “if we are intellectuals of one kind or another”. So I can at least speak in those terms: my job is not an intellectual one. Any thought, noble or otherwise, is generated by outside elements. This makes integration of my intellectual life and religious life much easier — the two are virtually synonymous.

    Is this betraying my religion? If so, I’m open to ideas as to how to bridge compartmentalization here at my big law firm.

  2. Kaimi on April 12, 2004 at 5:18 pm

    Steve,

    I just saw a very interesting article on that (sort of) exact subject. Amy Uelmen, a Catholic-legal-studies professor at Fordham, wrote a piece titled “Can a Religious Person be a Big Firm Litigator?”

    See http://www.mirrorofjustice.com/mirrorofjustice/uelmen/bigfirmlitigator.pdf

    (That’s a link off her group blog Mirror of Justice, http://www.mirrorofjustice.com).

  3. Jim F. on April 12, 2004 at 5:26 pm

    Steve, I hoped that “merely” qualified my statement, but perhaps it wasn’t enough. I think there are areas for which compartmentalization is quite appropriate, though as you note they tend not to be intellectual pursuits. Even in intellectual pursuits, as I hoped some of my examples would show, I don’t think compartmentalization is necessarily a problem. But doesn’t that actually make the issue more rather than less difficult? In some cases, such as corporate law, perhaps it is obvious that there is little relation between a particular pursuit and our religious life. But how do we decide the less obvious cases–and can we be sure that what is obvious isn’t really just a product of our blindness?

  4. Steve Evans on April 12, 2004 at 5:27 pm

    Thanks for the article K-man — I’ve skimmed it before but will give it a read. My take on it is that our professions and our religion really have little to do with each other, as each are typically defined; however, by expanding our perspectives on each, we can form a new kind of overlap. That sounds terribly exhausting.

  5. Jim F. on April 12, 2004 at 5:28 pm

    Steve: I forgot to point out that I agree completely with your statement, “I’m not convinced that the Lord particularly cares about what kind of work we do or our specialized fields of expertise.” I don’t think I either get or lose spiritual brownie points for being a philosopher.

  6. Jim F. on April 12, 2004 at 5:34 pm

    Richard’s post on capitalism and the Gospel (http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000661.html) is relevant: aren’t there times when seeing the world in a particular way isn’t neutral, even though it appears to be? When seeing the world through the eyes of a particular profession or pursuit, one that seems to be neither negatively nor positively correlated with ideas about the Gospel or Gospel practices, turns out to be a way of seeing the world that excludes or greatly modifies the way we see Gospel things?

  7. Adam Greenwood on April 12, 2004 at 5:35 pm

    -Let’s remember that, in a sense, ‘knowledge of things as they are’ is part of the gospel. So trying to figure out what ancient philosophers thought is that part of the gospel that describes what ancient philosophers thought.

    -Are professions may not integrate well with the core of the gospel, but we shouldn’t concede that without some trying

    -If nothing else, great profit can be found in using one’s work as a source of parables, a la Gordon Smith’s post on getting a driver’s license. Whenever I do so I find that I am unusually receptive to the Spirit, and that the work itself seems holier.

  8. Steve Evans on April 12, 2004 at 5:50 pm

    “When seeing the world through the eyes of a particular profession or pursuit, one that seems to be neither negatively nor positively correlated with ideas about the Gospel or Gospel practices, turns out to be a way of seeing the world that excludes or greatly modifies the way we see Gospel things?”

    Glad you brought up the idea of perception. I think the scriptures teach us a principle of Gospel exclusivity — that is, there’s no room for anything in our lives that’s not about the Gospel. We should be all about Christ, say the scriptures, and about nothing else. This is, I guess, the idea of the consecrated life, and it’s pretty well-supported in the standard works. So, by virtue of this teaching, there would be no professions which can view the Gospel with neutrality. That’s a tough one to swallow.

    At the same time, how could say, a plumber view the Gospel with anything other than neutrality? His pipes and wrenches do nothing for him in that sense (except via magnificats and strained parables like Adam mentions).

    So how can we reconcile these views, of a Gospel that demands all, and a profession that mentions nothing about the Gospel? We’d be crazy to try and integrate them intellectually. But I think we can approach the problem from a practical standpoint, i.e., as a good believer that practices the art of plumbing. If we shift perspectives from academic harmonization to practical living, I think integration is easier to handle. But we remain compartmentalized in our minds.

  9. Jim F. on April 12, 2004 at 5:57 pm

    Steve, very nice response: practice integrates what may not be integrable in thought. The trick is not to let thought get the upper hand.

  10. Steve Evans on April 12, 2004 at 5:59 pm

    Jim, you know me — when have I ever let thought get the upper hand??

  11. Jim F. on April 12, 2004 at 6:01 pm

    It may have gotten the upper hand in some of the funnier asides that Janice reported hearing in your Sacrament meeting translations. In that case, however, it was probably all to the better.

  12. Jim F. on April 12, 2004 at 6:03 pm

    More seriously: I think that we have such a natural inclination to value thought above practice that it often gets the upper hand, even when we think otherwise.

  13. Steve Evans on April 12, 2004 at 6:05 pm

    That all being said, Jim, you know that “approaching the problem from a practical standpoint” is the last-ditch effort of a poor, poor philosopher. It doesn’t resolve the blindness problems you discuss. But it does make me feel better about my shallow existence.

  14. Charles on April 12, 2004 at 6:55 pm

    I’ve given a lot of thought to this myself. I’ve always been a christian and recieved criticism or questions from freinds asking why I chose philosophy or how does my belief in the TAO or other, seemingly unrelated, subjects tie in with my christian beliefs.

    I’ve always viewed philosophy as my outlook in life. It is part of my outlook. I would say that my religion is something that is a greater umbrella. My religious sphere is all encompassing and my other paradigms are part of it rather than it being a part of them or completely equal.

    In my reading I’ve meditated on the scriptures and other great works. I am pleased in my testimony that knowledge is the light of God. That essentially all the things we can learn about are a part of the overall truth. This has always been a good example of how I reconcile those differences for people that do not understand it.

  15. Nate Oman on April 12, 2004 at 7:43 pm

    “My take on it is that our professions and our religion really have little to do with each other, as each are typically defined; however, by expanding our perspectives on each, we can form a new kind of overlap. That sounds terribly exhausting.”

    Or tremendously fun, depending on your point of view.

    Another way of thinking about integration is to ask whether our “non-religious” intellectual lives give us any insight or perspective on the Gospel that might be interesting. For example, Jim — as near as I can tell — is fairly uninterested in working out a philosophy of Mormonism a la David Paulsen. On the otherhand, he seems fairly eager to jump in and point out what he sees as unstated philosophical biases that folks have about the gospel and more especially about reading the scriptures. It seems to me that there is a lot of value in this sort of thing, even if it isn’t an exercise in Aquinian system building.

    It is not obvious to me that law doesn’t have the possiblity of doing something similar. I am not arguing here that every aspect of securities regulation has some hidden gem of gospel insight. On the otherhand, I think that simply hanging up your lawyer’s brain when you start looking at Mormonism may be something of a loss. You can see (and admittedly inept) example of the sort of thing that I am talking about here:

    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000281.html

    There is another problem here, of course. Not only can integration be hard work. It may also be dangerous. Mingling the philsophies of men with scripture, legalizing the gospel of love, and all that…

  16. Steve Evans on April 12, 2004 at 7:53 pm

    “It is not obvious to me that law doesn’t have the possiblity of doing something similar”

    You’re absolutely right. But we don’t really practice law, now, do we? I’m not sure what it is we corporate lawyers do, but I’m pretty sure it’s not “law” in the sense you’re using it here.

    I was using my sardonic wit (TM) when I said it seemed terribly exhausting, I guess. Ultimately I agree with all your points. At least my mormon side does.

  17. William Morris on April 12, 2004 at 8:15 pm

    And that’s your more flattering side, right?

    I work in public relations and pursue a lay-academic interest in literature — esp. literary history/development, narrative theory, and ways of reading and interpretation.

    I have no problems with integration. ;-)

  18. William Morris on April 12, 2004 at 8:16 pm

    And that’s your better (more flattering) side, right?

    I work in public relations and pursue a lay-academic interest in literature — esp. literary history/development, narrative theory, and ways of reading and interpretation.

    I have no problems with integration. ;-)

  19. William Morris on April 12, 2004 at 8:23 pm

    Wow. After two months, I finally cause a double-post — and a non-identical one at that.
    —-

    By the way:

    My two church callings are…

    1. EQ instructor where I am called upon to interpret narratives by Thomas Monson, etc.

    2. Ward Rep to the Stake Public Affairs Committee where I do, well, public relations.

    I must be the most wholly-integrated member of the Church.

  20. Jim F. on April 12, 2004 at 11:46 pm

    Nate, I think that the mingling of scriptures with the philosophies of men occurs most often when we use “common sense” (the philosophies of men) uncritically, assuming that it and the scriptures say the same thing.

  21. Susan on April 12, 2004 at 11:56 pm

    Jim, I’m interested at your statement that you do self censor. I suppose we all do. But I’m wondering about the shape that self censorship takes in your position as professor at BYU.

  22. Jim F. on April 13, 2004 at 12:12 am

    Susan, for me–and I think also for my colleagues–self-censorship isn’t anything particularly overt. My self-censorship has two parts: (1) It is a matter of choosing to teach things that I’m interested in and teaching them from a viewpoint that I find interesting. For example, I don’t use Bertrand Russell’s history of philosophy, not because he is against religion (as I said, I use Nietzsche all the time), but because (a) it is an awful history of philosophy, and (b) I prefer continental European approaches to Anglo-American ones. In other words, I don’t kid myself that I’m objective.

    At the same time, (2) when planning a class I sometimes ask myself how my students will respond. I’m not so concerned about destroying their testimonies because I’ve not had any experiences that would make me think that philosophy is likely to do that. But I do worry that they will respond in such a knee-jerk fashion to some materials that I will have a difficult time getting them to see the point. So I choose materials with my students in mind: what can I use that they’ll be able to read without getting too angry or uncomfortable or . . . ? I’m interested in making them uncomfortable, but not so uncomfortable that they quit reading and listening.

  23. Jeremy on April 13, 2004 at 12:12 am

    Steve,

    Well, it isn’t quite plumbing, but if you’ve ever been to or seen pictures of Gilgal (the curious little sculpture garden off of 4th South in SLC), you may recall the sculpture that the garden owner, Thomas B. Child, had made of himself. Child was a stonemason/bricklayer by trade, and a longtime bishop as well. His sculpture stands in a little alcove that is decorated on one side with tools of his trade, and on the other side, an egraved depiction of the 10th Ward meethinghouse, which he had helped build and where he had served as bishop for several years. Under one arm, Child is holding his scriptures; under the other, he’s hold ing what looks like some rolled-up blueprints. Clearly he saw some connection between his livelihood and his ecclesiastical calling; I think it has something to do with Mormon “materialism” (see Jim F.’s excellent article on this in element)–the manual laboror “creating” or “constructing” out of materials, in something like the way the Mormon God “organizes” rather than creates ex nihilo. Now, whether Child actually had cosmic thoughts while he was mixing mortar and hauling bricks, or whether a cosmologically-minded plumber or retail worker or carpet salesman would have similar thoughts about his/her job (esp. while on the job) is another question entirely.

    I’ve been unsuccessful in extricating my personal beliefs (as a practicing mormon) from my chosen field–and in fact, though it was not my intention when I started grad school, one of my areas of interest is (jack)mormon artsy types who have likewise been unable to extricate themselves from their religious background–despite abandoning personal religious observances and/or doctrinal beliefs. I’ve been studying several lapsed Mormon artists/musicians in various disciplines who, for reasons I attribute to their shared Mormon backgrounds, all independently adopted certain rather obscure and highly specialized techniques and aesthetic approaches. Some of them were conscious of the influence of Mormonism in their taking this approach; some didn’t recognize it initially, but more or less endorse or accept my explanation; others don’t see it at all.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that certain aspects of Mormon identity/worldview can be so fundamental and pervasive (perhaps moreso for persons raised in heavily LDS areas) that they can become invisible, and if they play out in our everyday lives at the office or whatever, they may do so in ways that we might not readily discern.

  24. Susan on April 13, 2004 at 12:32 am

    Your mention of Gilgal sends me off down memory lane–a totally unrelated rant. What can I say. I have very fond memories of my sojourn in the second ward in Salt Lake City (wonderful stain glass window, a pipe organ I loved to play on Sundays). But one of the truly fine memories–our ward parties in Gilgal. We had a rather substantial number of Tongan members in our ward. We would have wonderful pit barbeques–full pigs–and great programs (live music and dancing in full costume from Tongan members) at Gilgal. For me Gilgal, roasted pig, great music, and dancing are inextricably linked.

  25. Kevin on April 13, 2004 at 3:18 am

    Jim said, “Perhaps that is part of the reason I don’t think that belief is central to LDS religion: it is important only as part of the practice of religion, not in itself.”

    Steve Covey says that as a mission president, he found that investigators had a much harder time keeping the commandments than they did believing the doctrine. I think that many of us who frequent boards like this have a hard time relating to that. For us, or at least for me, believing seems like the hard part.

    It was at a time when I was particularly struggling in this regard that I read Richard Bushman’s “The Social Dimensions of Rationality”. To quote him: “I begin with an insistent question that shoulders aside even truth in demanding our attention: How should we live a life? … We cannot wait to hear from science or the universities in these matters. We are in the middle of the fray the minute we open our eyes each morning.”

    It was then that I began to understand the particular importance of commandments, rituals, and callings to someone like me. My religion has the power to save me from the incessant pondering and scrutinizing to which I’m prone.

    My job, on the other hand, is somewhat analytical, so a gear shift is required when I switch between secular and religious pursuits. If integration means taking an analytical approach to religion, I no longer consider that desirable. True, I visit boards like these sometimes, but this hashing of LDS subjects is not religion. Religion is what I do.

  26. Melissa on April 13, 2004 at 11:52 am

    Steve wrote:

    “I’m not convinced that the Lord particularly cares about what kind of work we do or our specialized fields of expertise.”

    I can’t speak in general to this, but I can say unequivocally that in my own life just the opposite is true. Not only do I feel specifically led into my field, but I feel that the Lord cares very much about the “kind of work” I do in this field.

    Jim—I don’t think that feeling that God cares about what kind of work one does is necessarily related to earning or losing brownie points in heaven. Instead, I think that there might be fields in which particular individuals can make a profound difference (not in the history of the earth or something, but to specific people) Perhaps more importantly, God knows that certain fields will profoundly influence those who pursue them in ways necessary for their growth. At any rate, I’m glad that you are a philosopher instead of a plumber or an accountant.

    A couple more quick comments:

    First, philosophy might not be taught differently at BYU, but scripture is. I know the reasons why this is the case and don’t entirely disagree with them. In my own experience, however, I think that BYU sends their students out woefully unprepared for graduate training in Scripture. I could talk at length about this, but won’t here and now.

    Second, Jim writes, I think that we have such a natural inclination to value thought above practice that it often gets the upper hand, even when we think otherwise.” Is the “we” here Latter-day Saints? If so, then I agreee. In the field of Religious Studies, however practice theory reigns supreme. Many scholars of religion (in religious studies Departments–not divinity schools) see themselves as sociologists more than anything else. Although I fight against this constantly, scholars of religion who want to study “thought” or “philosophy of religion” are more at home in philosophy departments than in religion departments. The concern for religious studies departments revolves around the question of how one can study or teach religious thought in a modern, secular university without crossing the line into actually teaching religion? This is a hotly debated issue and much is at stake on both sides.

    Sorry, for the tangent into my own specialized field. Obviously, for me there is very little compartmentalization.

  27. Steve Evans on April 13, 2004 at 12:03 pm

    Melissa,

    I guess I should speak a little more carefully. Of course each of us should feel guided and inspired as we choose career paths and as we decide on a profession. I think that you are in a field that may be more suited to regular inspiration, perhaps?

    What I guess I really meant is that God is no respecter of persons. Jim (happily) interpreted me along those lines. God of course cares very much about how involved He is in our lives and how often we turn to Him for guidance — I wouldn’t suggest otherwise. But His concern for us is unrelated to whether our jobs involve interpreting scripture or filing prospectuses.

  28. Melissa on April 13, 2004 at 12:47 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Steve.

  29. Steve Evans on April 13, 2004 at 12:50 pm

    Now that’s more like it!

  30. Jim F. on April 13, 2004 at 1:28 pm

    Melissa, Steve already said what I would say about whether the Lord cares about what we do for work, so I won’t add to that.

    As you well know, perhaps too well, BYU doesn’t teach scripture to prepare students for graduate school, at least not in the ordinary religion classes. Though the religion classes have moved more in the direction of scholarly courses over the last few years, they are still not intended to be scholarly. They are primarily catechetic. That’s what the Church wants them to be and, I think, what most BYU faculty think they should be. I know that some of the Religious Ed faculty have been talking about what to do for students who do want to go on in religious studies or biblical studies, but as yet I don’t think anything has been put together for them. It remains a problem for us.

    When I said that _we_ tend to place thought above practice, I was referring to we homo sapiens, not only to Latter-day Saint homo sapiens. Having brains capable of self-reflection, and, therefore, of critical thought, we tend to forget that the brain is one of the organs that make us who we are rather than the only one or the most important one. (Cartesian egoism is a mistake, but a natural one.) The result is that we tend to think theory is more valuable than practice. This explains why almost every time I meet someone new and that person discovers that I teach philosophy, they are immediately intimidated. It isn’t me, believe me. And it isn’t that philosophy really is the best thing one could do with an embodied brain (though I happen to like it very much). It is that philosophy is recognized as having little to do with practices and almost everything to do with thought, so it has the status in our culture of something “really important” or “really hard” or . . . . (Why else would any number of undergraduates brag that they are philosophy majors when, in fact, they are not?)

    So, I think my remark also applies to those in Religious Studies interested in practice theory. That is, after all, a theory rather than a practice. It may not be the best way to do religious studies (about that I know too little to have an opinion), but it remains a theoretical practice itself.

    Feel free to take us off on interesting tangents whenever the mood strikes you. It gives me an opportunity to continue to create outrageously long posts.

  31. Lyle on April 13, 2004 at 2:03 pm

    Jim/All: Wow. Two great threads in just a few days. I repent & return.

    re: my integration. I graduate from byu law school next week & have spent the last 3 years studying human rights law. I choose this because it seemed to offer an opportunity to improve the chances (i.e. Agency & Opportunity) that my Sisters & Brothers would have to learn of & live the Restored Gospel.

    I don’t see this as any different from anyone else though: we all choose careers, IMO, that will allow us to focus on our families & build the kingdom of God by magnifying our talents. Maybe that is as a stay at home father; maybe as a lawyer who does SEC stock registrations & ensures that it is 110% honest, etc.

    Sum: Great question…yet maybe in our actions most Saints have already integrated their lives?

  32. William Morris on April 13, 2004 at 2:51 pm

    Although my academic studies and profession have impacted my world view and base philosophy, that impact hasn’t been as great as I would have thought it to be back when I first started my life as an adult [returned from my mission].

    In fact, what I find interesting is how my faith, practice and doctrine have affected the ‘other’ parts of my life — esp. my academic studies. It has provided me with a core skepticism. It is a grounding element.

    It has also led to a certain alienation. A feeling that I don’t belong [and don't want to belong]. Something like what Nate describes here: http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000661.html#008969

    What I find funny is that my literary studies (which took place at very liberal schools) valorized to a certain extent post-modernism, post-colonialism, hybrid-ism, trangression of boundaries, etc. But instead of making me a reactionary [although I do have some of that] or a true believer, I have become interested in how Mormon discourse can act as a subversive element. In other words, one of my main concerns at the moment is how Mormon doctrine and thought and culture and practice can be used to critique American society. Perhaps it’s because I live in the Bay Area, but to me the choice to live a ‘Mormon’ lifestyle, and especially to have children and make the accomodations (in relation to modern American life) that they require seems like a radical act. And one that could be an fruitful, groundbreaking subject for modern cultural narratives — novels, TV, film, visual art. I mean critiquing the hollowness of the suburbs — or — the pain and euphoria of coming out. Booooring. So 20th century.

    Naturally, everyone wants to see themselves (or their perceived selves) reflected in culture, but I think there’s something being missed when Mormonism is presented in our current culture as white, middle-class conservatism with a touch of weirdness [don't drink, that polygamy thing] — not that those adjectives don’t fit. Just that we’re deserving, I think, of art that does justice to the richness of our doctrine, our history, of who we are.

    So this is all to say that the integration I’m looking for isn’t with my professional or personal pursuits — it’s more with finding ways to use those pursuits subversively to express my Mormonism. Making sure that my view of what this world is about and how it operates gets embedded in or infiltrates the larger discourses. Part of that, granted, is trying to bring a richness to Mormon discourse — esp. literature and criticism — itself. But for me the whole reason behind that is to complicate the picture of Mormonism for those of our faith and to help Mormons not buy wholeheartedly in to the world’s discourses. This again is complicated by the fact that these variouse discourses aren’t clearly delineated, but I’m going to stop before this spirals out of control. Essentially: I’m not looking for purity or even much power. Infection is perhaps the right word. I want us to infect the rest of society as much as we can by drawing on the vital sources of our unique theology and ways of practicing that theology.

  33. Dave on April 13, 2004 at 3:04 pm

    Jim, it’s nice to hear that BYU gives the philosophy faculty a free hand to teach philosophy as they see fit. I trust the faculty. I’m encouraged by your remarks, although the extent of self-censorship practiced by your fellow faculty members would make an interesting discussion. I do think you are correct that many in the Church would suspect things are worse than you describe.

    This is a problem for BYU: the administration is probably not aware that some parents whether correctly or not) perceive the academic culture of BYU (as it has evolved over the last twenty years or so) as a reason some LDS parents might choose to steer their bright entering freshman elsewhere. It seems like if parental concerns are unfounded, BYU should make an institutional effort to correct the misperceptions that exist among LDS adults who are raising the next generation of BYU freshmen.

  34. Jim F. on April 13, 2004 at 8:35 pm

    Dave, I’ve known most of those in my department for almost thirty years and many faculty in other departments for a long time. I don’t think their experience is that different from mine. There is and has been during my time here very little administrative meddling in the class room, if any. The self-censorship I described earlier is, I am fairly sure, the same kind practiced by most faculty.

    How would we correct the misperceptions that some have about BYU’s supposed oppressive state without creating other misperceptions about its “liberal stance”?

    There are, of course, not only those who worry that students at BYU cannot get a real education. There are also many who are dissatisfied with BYU because they believe it has lost its “calling.” Some think it because we have had to limit enrollments. Some think it because we don’t fire the professors they don’t like. Some think it because we require professors to publish. Some think it because we not only teach evolution, but have one of the largest congregations of evolutionary biologists around. I’m sure that some think it because we have a philosophy department in which I can teach Nietzsche and postmodernism. Is more politically realistic to worry about those people than about the one’s who don’t believe we are a real university.

    However, in the end, I think the best thing to do is probably to go ahead and do our jobs and hope that the students who graduate from BYU show who we really are. The former BYU students who post here, both as bloggers and as commentors, aren’t nearly as different from the norm as we would often like to believe. They are a diverse group, but they are bright and thoughtful women and men who are doing well in their professions. I think they are our best advertising.

  35. Clark Goble on April 13, 2004 at 8:52 pm

    Speaking of which, anyone remember way back when Pres. Bateman had that talk (partially unattributed) condemning postmodernism? Did anyone in the philosophy or English departments feel pressure from that?

  36. Jim F. on April 13, 2004 at 10:31 pm

    I’m sure they did. At the same time, within less than six months I sponsored (with Brandie Sigfried) a faculty seminar on postmodernism that was quite well attended. The opening speaker was Merrill Bateman, who applauded our decision to have the seminar.

  37. Melissa on April 13, 2004 at 11:52 pm

    Jim,

    I laughed at myself when I read your post. Of course, practice theory is still just theory and thus, thought, even if we are thinking about practices instead of thinking about thoughts (and beliefs, etc).

    A rare event occurred today that I thought some here might appreciate:

    By way of introducing our discussion on Mormon women in my class on Women and Religion the professor said that when most American children are asked what they would like to be when they grow up little boys say firefighters while little girls say ballerinas. Only among Mormon children, she reported, do little girls say they want to be mommies while little boys say they want to be daddies.

    A disturbing moment followed this introduction:

    The whole ensuing discussion about Terry Tempest Williams’ book _Refuge_ couldn’t have been more positive. Everyone loved this beautifully written book, not surprisingly. They commented on how close the Williams family seemed to be and how empowered Terry seemed as a woman. I felt like a real louse when my turn came to review Maxine Hanks’ book _Women and Authority_. Although I value this book tremendously, I would likely not have put it on my own syllabus for a course like this. However, since it was assigned, I decided to volunteer to be the one to review it. To say the least, my presentation of this book complicated everyone’s conception of Mormon women.

    The question that made me squirm when I was done reviewing the book was the following from an outspoken evangelical from the South whom I really like. “I don’t quite understand,” she said. “What sin did these women commit that got them excommunicated?” I sat there agonizing and wishing we could go back to talking about how little Mormon boys all say they want to grow up to daddies. I had just explained that Latter-day Saints are non-creedal and that LDS theology is relatively open-ended and unspecified. How could I now say that these women had sinned in some way simply for writing about history and drawing out implications of accepted doctrines (especially since I don’t believe that). But, I didn’t want to say that they were disciplined for no good reason either. I had to account for what had happened in some way. I equivocated for a few minutes and finally said that the women were excommunicated because they had been disobedient to their leaders who had asked them not to write or speak on certain topics. My professor (whom I also like very much) tried to come to my aid by explaining that many LDS women feel a “coercion of conscience” (I don’t know why she thinks this/how she knows this). “Mormon women” she continued, “feel that their feminism is born directly from their Mormon faith not from the culture around them, and so being asked to deny their feminism is like being asked to deny their faith.” Her clear message was that although some of these women could reject their feminism and remain members of the Church, they choose not do so out of integrity. I sat there stunned and impressed at her insight. There were immediately lots of questions about how all this affects me personally and whether or not I can/should be studying women and religion, etc., most of which, I am happy to say, I deftly deflected. Still, the whole episode was troubling to me and I haven’t been able to think about anything else since. I suppose I should ask a provocative question now to foster discussion, but I don’t have any questions to ask except to re-iterate Chrissie’s question from above and to wonder what you think of my professor’s response.

    My real purpose to get on T and S tonight was to remind everyone about Phil Barlow’ lecture this coming Thursday at 5:15 in Andover A Divinity Hall at Harvard Divinity School (45 Francis Avenue)in Cambridge. If you are in the area, drop by.

  38. Susan on April 14, 2004 at 12:21 am

    Two things I’m struck by when I read where this discussion has gone while I was at work.

    The first way back at Jim’s comments: “Perhaps that is part of the reason I don’t think that belief is central to LDS religion: it is important only as part of the practice of religion, not in itself.”

    I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this comment. Are you saying that LDS religion helps you to practice religion better and live better than you would otherwise. I find that claim hard to think about. I can’t see how you disconnect religion or life in this way from what you are asked to believe? At least that’s the way this comment struck me. Please tell me how you think about this differently (which I suspect is the case).

    Melissa, I’m very moved by your last post: “Her clear message was that although some of these women could reject their feminism and remain members of the Church, they choose not do so out of integrity.” I do know Maxine pretty well and also Lavina. I consider them both friends. (And I would be the first to admit that the two have very different approaches and have gone in radically different directions over the past decade.) I do know that a great deal of both women’s experiences with church councils revolves around a sense of personal integrity. I tried to blog about this in the past couple of weeks. It’s at the heart of what I was trying to say in my “Defending the Faith” post. I know people who have begun in the same place. We love the church. We are deeply moved by our experience in the church. We begin down a path where we value truth, we take life a step at a time, we’re deeply commited to a sense of personal integrity and who we are because of what we believe about the church and about truth. That is such an important part of what is involved in that path the church sends people trodding. And some of us end up in the church, some of us end up in a battle somehow. (I personally feel lucky I haven’t been asked to battle. I don’t want to. But I also don’t want to be asked to compromise my sense of personal integrity, of following a path that for better or worse my heritage set me on.) I’m moved by the struggle to make this work and to stay in the church. At some point a sea change simply happened in my heart and mind. I couldn’t do that any more. My commitment to who I was–very much structured around my life in the church and my commitment to values and beliefs I honed in the church and in my study of Mormonism–set me off on a different quest.

WELCOME

Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.