Interreligious Dialogue at the LOC, Part II

May 23, 2005 | 13 comments
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Here are some reflections on the second session, “Joseph Smith and the Recovery of Past Worlds.” (web archives on lds.org) I have tried to give just enough summary to support my reflections on how it went as a dialogue.

Main speaker Terryl Givens described Joseph Smith as an explorer and re-discoverer of ancient worlds. In the 19th century, modern methods of historical inquiry and scientific explanation were deeply unsettling the way humans understood their place in the world. Joseph collapsed the gap between empirical history and meaning-giving myth as he met face-to-face with the prophets of past ages and continued their story in his day. Emphasizing that true religion is a process, not merely fixed content, Joseph has much in common with the Romantic movement that flourished in his time. In the first session, just that morning, Richard Hughes had tied Joseph Smith to the Romantic movement, as though to place him firmly in a 19th-century context. Yet Givens portrayed Joseph’s Romanticism as precisely a transcending of the 19th-century context, to the point of transforming our understanding of the whole history of the world. Everything Givens said could have been appreciated by both Mormons and non-Mormons.

Margaret Barker discussed what extra-biblical ancient texts suggest about the ancient world, and how this fits with ancient texts Joseph claimed to restore. She described striking harmonies, welcome news for Mormons. Sometimes it seemed a bit too perfect: surely there are also some extra-biblical texts that clash with Joseph’s revelations? However, the picture she painted does challenge the Mormon status quo by suggesting the Old Testament as we know it may have been shaped more deeply by the purposes of apostate Jewish priests than we would usually suppose.

Whereas Margaret Barker compared Joseph’s revelations with the Old World, John Clark compared them with the ancient New World, through archaeology. Clark gave an overview of puzzles to be examined, and progress toward solving them, concluding that there is strong and growing consistency between New World archeology and the Book of Mormon. The talk received a good audience response and was probably welcome to the many non-specialists in the large audience. Clark’s sweeping overview would probably have been frustrating to skeptics of the Book of Mormon, however, because it provided little basis for the listener to draw her own conclusions.

After Barker’s and Clark’s empirical arguments that supported the Book of Mormon, Jack Welch’s talk was very timely. He pointed out that on questions that carry so much religious weight, it is often difficult to establish scholarly consensus even on what counts as sound reasoning, on what is “enough” evidence to establish a claim. Hence partisan disagreement is likely to continue indefinitely.

I think the realism Welch urged about the outcome of academic discussion is essential to preserving the sense of common purpose that productive and continuing dialogue requires. The discussion may lead some people to change their minds about whether Joseph was really a prophet, whether he revealed authentically ancient texts, etc. However, any presentation that focuses too much on one or another answer to these questions risks alienating half of the audience. Just as importantly, focusing on these questions will tend to bog the conversation down, reducing the progress in understanding on either side. Someone who is already persuaded that Joseph is a prophet may benefit from hearing more reasons to think what she already thinks. But she is likely to benefit more from a talk that focuses on expanding her understanding of what Joseph actually did and said, and understanding this is essential to deriving any benefit at all from the idea that he was a prophet. Someone who is already persuaded that Joseph is not a prophet is likely to be annoyed, and question the reliability of the speaker, when hearing more arguments that he was a prophet, after all. As for arguments that Joseph is not a prophet, these are even more boring for someone who is already persuaded that he is not, since in that case it is not clear why he is worth the time to think any more about. Again, much more interesting is a talk that expands one’s understanding of what he did and said, and why it was compelling to so many people, right or wrong.

There is thus a lot to be said, then, for talks that do not explicitly draw any conclusion on whether the Book of Mormon is true or not, or whether Joseph Smith was a prophet or not, and presentations may alienate their audience if they are too much organized around such a thesis, even implicitly. There is a lot to be said for illuminating what Joseph said and did, then letting the audience draw what conclusions they will, hopefully with the private guidance of the Holy Spirit. That said, though, I think overt partisanship can be done well, without eroding dialogue. I think the third daytime session (Saturday morning) was an excellent example of this. I hope to write about it soon.

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13 Responses to Interreligious Dialogue at the LOC, Part II

  1. Lisa B on May 24, 2005 at 4:26 am

    What could the common purpose of those who are convinced of Joseph Smith’s divine call and those convinced of his madness be? Isn’t the hope of continued dialog–though intermediately identified as increased understanding–ultimately persuasion?

    Why would arguments against be less interesting to those already convinced against than for those for? The supposition here is that Joseph Smith is a prophet, not simply an amazing and uniquely American historical figure (and certainly not a nutcase). Can we ever really get outside of this supposition? And if we do, don’t we lose the whole point?

  2. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 24, 2005 at 7:47 am

    surely there are also some extra-biblical texts that clash with Joseph’s revelations?

    By all means. The real point is that Joseph is consistent with the melieu and substance of many. That is what strikes Harold Bloom (though Bloom is a gnostic who believes there is a gnostic streak striving to break through and that it gives authentic voice every-so-often) and what Nibley is getting at. Not “ah hah — this citation is proof” but “one more time, Joseph Smith is consistent with,” which is a far different thing.

    Neat stuff though.

  3. Kevin Christensen on May 24, 2005 at 9:33 am

    With respect to the fit between the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, the D&C, and Margaret Barker’s reconstruction of 1st Temple Judaism: “Sometimes it seemed a bit too perfect.” If you look at it closely, as I have been doing for six years now, you will find that the fit becomes more uncanny the closer your look. (Compare her book The Risen Lord and D&C 93. How does that happen accidentally?) That is not to say we don’t have to re-examine things on both sides of the comparison now and then–or that there aren’t open issues–but that looking closer is always enlightening for both sides of the comparison. Because she is offering a new paradigm, re-reading everything with the new perspective is a necessity for seeing the scope and signifcance of what she offers. I’m amazed at her comment that it may be that the wickedness in Jerusalem that Lehi protest may well have been Josiah’s reform. So she’s not just telling us things we knew. She’s challenging us to re-examine what we have.

    And what is even more amazing, Margaret did not have to come to Washington D.C. to say so. She could have said “No thanks,” or she could have done something like Stendahl and Charlesworth did in Reflections on Mormonism or Robert Price did in American Apocrypha, treating the Book of Mormon like an “interesting” Midrash composed by Joseph Smith. She could have done what Harold Bloom did, to dismiss is as not worth close study. She could have chosen to dissect some dated LDS apologia, as Finley did in TMNC, to make herself look good at our expense. Instead she treated it as not only reflecting a specific historical context (Jerusalem, 600 BCE), but as prophetic in restoring “plain and precious things” which had been lost. Nibley reported that Albright had a well marked copy of the Book of Mormon, but would drop the topic like a hot potato if anyone asked him about it. M. Catherine Thomas commented to me before the BYU Seminar, that she wondered whether Margaret would fear that the unexpected association with LDS scripture would damage her hard-won reputation. I contacted her right around the time she was made president elect of the Society for Old Testament Study. I was corresponding with her when she had been asked to head up a Cambridge study of the Temple roots of Christian liturgy. Margaret has come out strongly and in public to say things that no outsider has before. Something extraordinary is happening with Margaret Barker. It’s something to savor and she is someone to appreciate.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  4. Justin on May 24, 2005 at 11:16 am

    I believe Margaret Barker’s scholarship should be approached with great caution. I think she offers some intriguing ideas, but I have questions about her methods. Reviews of her work by her peers have suggested the existence of troubling flaws in her methodology. They have observed that she will proceed to conclusions on the basis of assertion and speculation rather than careful argumentation, that she makes oversimplified arguments, that she writes in an “apodeictic manner, eschewing footnotes, and seldom, if ever, attempts to demonstrate the plausibility–or sometimes the exact meaning–of her contentions,” and that she finds parallels between ancient texts while ignoring differences.

    Having read and enjoyed a number of her books, I can agree with one reviewer who called her an “imaginative and idiosyncratic scholar.”

  5. Matt Bowman on May 24, 2005 at 12:33 pm

    Lisa, I don’t think it’s as much an either/or supposition as you’re implying. If JS was a prophet, that does not separate him from the extremely rich culture he grew up in and shaped his own perceptions and understandings in ways he may not have been aware of (for example, the common explanation of why the BoM is in faux-King James English; Joseph believed on some level that that’s what scripture should sound like).

    JS had no precedents to teach him how to be a prophet in nineteenth century America. I think it’s worth studying his world to see if we can’t learn more about the cultural and historical foundations he built his self-understanding on. Richard Hughes’s thoughts addressed this in an interesting way. Grant Underwood’s presentation (though I know some found his sudden left turn into Tibetan Buddhism odd) was on the same path. The question he seemed to be driving at was this: Can the study of other religious traditions, other ways that people attempt to grapple with experience of the divine, help us understand what it meant for Joseph Smith to be a prophet? How did he understand his own role, from the broad sweep of history to the nitty-gritty of how a prophet functions, and are there parallels to this in the past (Margaret Barker might fit here, in regards to the BoM)? Can comparative history illuminate things about his career and writings that we have either overlooked or taken for granted?

    I think these are questions “joint” conferences like this can address – less ones of was he/wasn’t he, and more along the lines of how has humanity dealt with the presence of prophecy in the broadest sense; whether this information can inform how we understand Joseph Smith, and vice versa.

  6. Ben H on May 24, 2005 at 1:40 pm

    What could the common purpose of those who are convinced of Joseph Smith’s divine call and those convinced of his madness be?

    Simply put, understanding him and his message and the many relevant facts in the neighborhood. Some people see him as a reflection of the (or an) American religious mindset. Some see him as a bewitching personality. Whatever you think he is on these lines, understanding just how he led, what the literary structure of his revelations is, how they relate to traditional Christian theology and to theological ideas in his vicinity, or to the ancient world–all these are interesting from a variety of perspectives on whether he was a prophet. And the sheer size and growing influence of the movement he founded is a motive to many to take a close look at the founder.

    Isn’t the hope of continued dialog–though intermediately identified as increased understanding–ultimately persuasion?

    Maybe. For many involved, yes, the ultimate objective is persuasion. And for many others, even if they aren’t directly trying to persuade, the fact remains that they would like to see people come around to their own view, if they had their druthers. But two things:

    (i) Often the best approach to persuasion is not the most direct one. This is particularly true among scholars, who have been thinking about this too long for them to be likely to change their minds based on any one talk or article. Touching lightly on the “ultimate point”, and spending the most time on other issues (relevant though they be), shows respect for the development of their sincere judgment. Here’s a comparison–suppose I call and leave a message, asking you to call me back. Then, instead of waiting for you to call back, I call five times a day for the next three days. Outside of some emergency, this is odd behavior. It suggests a lack of trust in your judgment as to when you have time to get back to me. Maybe you are supremely busy and need a couple of days for things to subside. Waiting for you to call shows trust and respect for your judgment about your life, and my place on your priority list. Writing every paper as though at the end, the reader is supposed to agree that Joseph was a prophet, after all, is like calling back every three hours. We need to show respect for the fact that some people may reasonably and sincerely take longer to come around, if they are going to come around. They have reasons for not yet agreeing, and these will take time to work through.

    Also, some of the reasons for accepting or not accepting Joseph as a prophet are simply not the sort of reasons that can be effectively addressed in an academic context. So perhaps we should proceed on the assumption that no one will ever be persuaded by an academic paper–that at most, such papers will play a role in a larger process of persuasion.

    (ii) Part of the purpose of dialogue across differences is to cultivate friendship and mutual understanding that transcends those differences. It needs to be clear from the way we talk to people that getting them agree with us is not our only goal in having a relationship with them.

    The supposition here is that Joseph Smith is a prophet . . . Can we ever really get outside of this supposition? And if we do, don’t we lose the whole point?

    As Mormons, I don’t think we ever need to get outside of this supposition. But we do need to show some understanding for those who are outside of it. So we need to get beside it, leave it to one side sometimes, and talk about other issues where we can more readily find common purpose.

  7. Lisa B. on May 26, 2005 at 11:14 am

    Matt, are you saying it’s not necessarily prophet or nutcase? Or not necessarily only an option between fully believing or completely disregarding? Or not necessarily only a choice between dialog that intends to (eventually) “convert” or dialog with no such intention?

    I agree with all three (that it’s never simply a matter of extremes). I do wonder, however, on the third insofar as personally held religious beliefs are concerned.

    I would love to see more dialog of the nature of this Joseph Smith conference–attempts to look at Mormonism and all it entails in greater detail and in a manner that invites discussion and respect as nearly universally as possible. Ah, but I am such a skepetic regarding our ability to fully recognize let alone work beyond our individual blinders–and am particularly averse to non-transparency (if an attempt at objectivity is a pretense).

    Ben, I do not believe that ends justify means–hence my response to your example of the potential benefit of two possible types of dialog to those at the extremes (the earnest believer vs someone convinced of the fraud or insanity of Joseph Smith) and also your comment on “best approach.” I would hope, rather, that the best approach would be the approach with the most integrity, rather than the approach with the most “success.”

    I do like the concept of setting aside (not completely, but in terms of focus) the question of veracity or legitimacy.

  8. Kevin Christensen on May 26, 2005 at 11:52 am

    Regarding Justin’s comments on Margaret Barker’s scholarship, the reviewer that claimed that she “eschews footnotes” was referring to one book (I think The Revelation of Jesus Christ).

    Inappropriately generalizing about her scholarship from that comment is, from my perspective, not so much a telling criticism as much as confession that one has not read The Older Testament, The Risen Lord, or The Great High Priest. Even in the books that are not as footnote heavy, she always refers directly and frequently to a wide range of primary sources. (And the Revelation of Jesus Christ does just that, contextualizing the symbols in Revelation by tracking the use of the same symbols in a wide range of Jewish and Christian writings.)

    One may safely presume that those “peers” distrust her methods and argumentation were not identical with those who voted for her as President of the Society for Old Testament Study, or those who invited her to head up an international research team at Cambridge, or accept her Journal articles and books for publication, or who invite her to speak at various venues, or who grant her editorship for academic publishers. Wilfred Griggs, at the BYU symposium in 2003, commented at the close of one session, “She puts our scholarship to shame.”

    Of course, if all she did was to use the same methods as everyone else, and offer the same opinions, what would be the point of bothering? One could get the same information and arguments from anyone else, and squat proudly on the firm foundation of fashionable consensus, while pointing fingers to mock the mavericks. She is offerring a new paradigm, using new methods, a new problem field, and new standards of solution. Of course that is going to be resisted by those invested in other approaches and conclusions. The fact of resistance does not automatically validate criticism, far less vague, unspecific criticisms.

    With respect to methods, she likes to place things in the widest possible context, insisting that evidence without context is merely data. For example, she takes something like the absence of the Day of Atonement from the sacred Calendar in Deuteronomy 16, and places that in a broad and meaningful context. I’ve read other commentaries on the Deuteronomists, yet none of them makes note of that now blazingly obvious fact, and consequently, no one bothers to make any effort to account for such an absence or to put it into context. She may not have consensus, but IMHO she has something better. She has vision.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  9. Ben H on May 26, 2005 at 12:01 pm

    Lisa B., could you explain a little more what you mean when you say you’re worried about means and ends? I guess I think efforts to understand what Joseph said and did can be valuable regardless of the writer’s intent to persuade on the prophet question, either for or against. Of course, they can also fail to be valuable, because someone’s agenda prevents them from doing good scholarship. We’ve seen plenty of that. But whether you think he was a prophet, madman, or genius, you can say illuminating things as a scholar when writing about other issues, and a good scholar will. So I don’t see that there is a particular end all must have, by which to judge their means.

  10. Justin on May 26, 2005 at 1:18 pm

    Regarding Justin’s comments on Margaret Barker’s scholarship, the reviewer that claimed that she “eschews footnotes” was referring to one book (I think The Revelation of Jesus Christ).

    That’s right. I should have been more clear.

    Inappropriately generalizing about her scholarship from that comment is, from my perspective, not so much a telling criticism as much as confession that one has not read The Older Testament, The Risen Lord, or The Great High Priest. Even in the books that are not as footnote heavy, she always refers directly and frequently to a wide range of primary sources. (And the Revelation of Jesus Christ does just that, contextualizing the symbols in Revelation by tracking the use of the same symbols in a wide range of Jewish and Christian writings.)

    I’ve read The Older Testament, The Risen Lord, and The Great High Priest.

    The fact that I find similar types of criticism in a range of reviews suggests, to me at least, that there are problems in her scholarship. Another reviewer of The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Susan Mathews, wrote:

    The main drawback of B[arker's] exposition of Revelation is the lack of grounding of her fundamental position in direct evidence. Although B. draws numerous conclusions based on parallels–some unclear or tenuous–between various ancient texts and Revelation, she herself admits that there is insufficient evidence for her assertions (e.g., pp. 49, 55). Her view on the origin and nature of Christian apocalypses is likewise unproved. There is no real consideration by B. of Revelation as a properly Christian or ecclesial text; it is merely Hebrew prophecy made by Jewish Christians before they separated from the synagogue. It remains unclear why Christians would preserve the material of the first temple after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., as B. says John did in his flight from besieged Jerusalem to Patmos.

    Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Apr. 2002, Vol. 64 Issue 2, p. 368.

    Of course, if all she did was to use the same methods as everyone else, and offer the same opinions, what would be the point of bothering? One could get the same information and arguments from anyone else, and squat proudly on the firm foundation of fashionable consensus, while pointing fingers to mock the mavericks. She is offerring a new paradigm, using new methods, a new problem field, and new standards of solution. Of course that is going to be resisted by those invested in other approaches and conclusions. The fact of resistance does not automatically validate criticism, far less vague, unspecific criticisms.

    She is free to offer new paradigms, use new methods, a problem field, and new standards of solution. But I would like to see more careful argumentation and less speculation.

  11. Lisa B. on May 27, 2005 at 5:07 pm

    Ben, I think we are mostly in agreement.

    Your arguments in support of a scholarly rather than apologetic approach seemed focused on what is the end that we are hoping to achieve and how (by what means) can we best achieve that end. (“Someone who is already persuaded that Joseph is a prophet may benefit…” “Often the best approach to persuasion is not the most direct one.” and “There is thus a lot to be said, then, for talks that do not explicitly draw any conclusion on whether the Book of Mormon is true or not, or whether Joseph Smith was a prophet or not.”)

    I agree that someone who is not convinced (or simply has some doubts) about Joseph Smith’s revelations would likely be more open to dialog in a less apologetic setting. But I don’t think that these (or even the fact that some will be offended by apologetics) are very good reasons for leaving the veracity questions out of an academic conference. I think a better reason is the one that you gave in this response “..some of the reasons for accepting or not accepting Joseph as a prophet are simply not the sort of reasons that can be effectively addressed in an academic context.” (I would perhaps say most if not all.)

    I look forward to your comments about the (more partisan?) third session.

  12. Bradley Ross on June 25, 2005 at 10:20 pm

    When I first went to watch these at lds.org, the second half of the second session was not available. It is now posted for any others that were hoping for it to appear. The video and audio on some of the other sessions was supposedly improved as well.

  13. Larry Hunt on September 18, 2005 at 11:07 pm

    I just read Kevin’s article, “Plain and Precious Things Restored: Why Margaret Barker Matters” at MeridianMagazine.com.

    Margaret Barker’s remarks at the Library of Congress’ Joseph Smith conference were the highlight of the proceedings for me and many others. She received the most enthusiastic and sustained applause of any of the sixteen speakers.

    My son, Joe, has posted a very good transcript of her remarks, which he received from a third party, at his poetry website, . (Click on the “misc.� category.)

    Larry Hunt

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