Do Mormon Intellectuals Have Intellectual Agendas?

November 1, 2006 | 35 comments
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Ironically, the main problem with Mormon intellectual discussions is that all too frequently we have no intellectual agenda. Or at least so it seems to me. To understand what I mean, consider an intellectual discussion that does (or at any rate did) have a clear research agenda: the law and economics movement.

Beginning in the early 1970s Richard Posner and a group of other scholars mainly centered on the University of Chicago law school began publishing law review articles centered around a simple theme: legal rules created incentives and these incentives could be modeled and evaluated using the tools of microeconomics. This basic insight provided a research paradigm that has lasted a good two generations. The positions taken by scholars have changed, and the economic analysis has generally become more sophisticated (although the legal analysis, in my opinion, has declined in quality) but the basic approach has remained the same. The movement was centered on a set of claims about what provided the best method of analyzing the law. In other words, law and economics had an intellectual agenda.

Mormon studies does not have a clear intellectual agenda. Rather, by and large our discussions have been dominated by pastoral or political questions rather than intellectual questions. For example, the most intense historiographic debates within Mormon history – the most professsionalized part of Mormon intellectualdom – have centered on theological and pastoral questions. Hence, people are tremendously concerned about questions like, “Is Mormon history faith promoting? Should it be?� Alternatively, the discussion has been dominated by political questions centering on how the Church could be made more liberal through intellectual discussion, or alternatively how the nefarious liberalizing tendencies of some Mormon intellectuals can be countered with intellectual discussions.

What is interesting is the extent to which the big debates in Mormon studies are generally not about intellectual issues. There are very few real methodological debates. There are relatively few debates about the relative merits of various explanatory theories about Mormonism. There are relatively few debates about potential implications of Mormonism for other fields of study. Instead, the highest profile debates are about pastoral or political issues.

Of course, I am overstating my case here, and increasingly (I hope) the discussion is less focused on pastoral or political issues. This is all to the good, as it seems to me that real intellectual progress is going to require that we start having debates about the relative explanatory power of differing theories. In other words, it will require that Mormon intellectuals actually start talking about intellectual issues, rather than their political ambitions for Mormonism or how one manages a crisis of faith. These are important questions, to be sure, but they are not the stuff of which enduring research agendas are made.

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35 Responses to Do Mormon Intellectuals Have Intellectual Agendas?

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 31, 2006 at 10:36 pm

    Nicely made point.

  2. Jonathan Green on October 31, 2006 at 11:18 pm

    But Nate, doesn’t the overriding intellectual agenda consist of either demonstrating that naturalistic approaches are inadequate, or demonstrating the opposite?

  3. a random John on October 31, 2006 at 11:34 pm

    I have an agenda: 90 minute church. Unfortunately I doubt I qualify as an intellectual. I do have a detailed plan of how to make it work though…

  4. TrailerTrash on October 31, 2006 at 11:52 pm

    Nate,
    I think that you have a fairly narrow view of what counts as an “intellectual agenda.” Why exactly are pastoral, organizational, and political concerns of “Mormon intellectuals” not an intellectual agenda? Since these are the main concerns of the church, it seems fair that these be the main concerns of intellectual Mormons.
    Besides, it strikes me that the questions about the historicity of LDS scripture and the methods for dealing with religious claims have been at the heart of Mormon intellectual life in the past five decades (the “explanatory theories” you were asking for). Given that these debates are a reflection (albeit delayed) of debates that have occurred in religious studies at large, it seems that these qualify as an intellectual agenda.
    But what exactly do you meaning by “explaining Mormonism” and what would qualify as an “intellectual agenda”? Clearly you want something different than what Bushman recently asked for on various blogs, sort of an apologetic account for the reasonableness of Mormonism. I suspect that you are looking for someone to apply economic models to Mormonism. The best you’ll get on this is Rodney Stark, who applies a rational-choice theory to religion. However, real religion scholars find these explanatory approaches rather unsatisfying generally.

  5. Dave on November 1, 2006 at 1:02 am

    Nice post, Nate. I’m embarrassed I don’t have an intelligent comment to contribute. I suppose someone more familiar with whatever it is that faculty members in Religious Studies departments do can explain it to the rest of us. I would assume it is more like traditional social science research than the sort of discussions Mormons have been having the last fifty years, but I could be expecting too much on that score. In any case, that would seem like the best place to start a search for Mormon Studies research questions that go beyond what we’ve seen so far.

    I also think the emergence of independent Mormon Studies programs at places like Utah State, Utah Valley, and Claremont should create an institutional home and funding source for the development of research programs more in line with what you have in mind.

  6. MLU on November 1, 2006 at 1:14 am

    The few academic disciplines that I think I know well enough to understand their intellectual agenda don’t inspire much hope in me. Though a single towering figure with dazzling insights that advanced our insight into truth could change that. If he or she arrives on scene, I suspect the insight will not have come primarily through scholarly methods, though the school that forms in the aftermath will train lots of diligent parsers to imitate the parts of the performance that can be imitated.

    The learning of men remains very much second fiddle, though inspired thinkers change everything.

  7. Mark Butler on November 1, 2006 at 2:17 am

    Amen.

  8. Adam on November 1, 2006 at 11:39 am

    Nate, I’m glad you’ve raised the issue in this way and I find it to be a particularly important question. A couple of thoughts occur to me in response.

    (1) In order for Mormon intellectuals to feel “comfortable” having intellectual agendas, I think that we may need to begin by recovering a positive understanding of speculative thinking in general as a rigorous expression of fidelity to the essentials of Mormonism and, in the process, demarcate an extra-institutional space for such work that explicitly refuses to “compete” in any way with the Church’s own authority. This could liberate Mormon thinking.

    (2) I think that the fundamental question from which a Mormon intellectual agenda should begin may simply be the perennial ontological question: is being one or many? Or, to put it another way (a way that does not simply repeat the previous distinction): ontologically, are Mormons dualists or monists? For what its worth, I’d throw my hat in the ring for a monistic/immanent multiplicity. The work would then be to elaborate as much of Mormon theology as possible from each of the perspectives and see what works best.

    (3) Re: MLU’s comment in #6. I worry that saying that what we really need is “a single towering figure with dazzling insights” too easily becomes a kind of excuse for not engaging in the work that needs to be done. I’m no genuis, but, in my opinion genuis isn’t the crucial thing: what’s essential is a willingness to do the reading, frame the issues, and speculatively explore the options. I also worry that framing Mormon intellectual work as awaiting a single towering genius is precisely what puts Mormon intellectualism in tension with the church as an institution. We don’t need someone to follow outside of the prophet, we just need groups of people doing patient, careful, dedicated, rigorous work on Mormon thinking. (Though I’m not saying I would complain about the arrival of such a genuis!).

  9. JKC on November 1, 2006 at 12:16 pm

    Nate, you’ve pointed out the positive effect of an agenda on the Law and Economics movement, but is there really a disadvantage to not having an agenda? Especially if the agenda for Posner and his ilk has kind of come up dry recently, as you hint, is there any lasting advantage? Maybe the reason Mormon intellectuals lack an agenda is concern for longevity. If you become too committed to an agenda, then it’s difficult to outlast the agenda when it becomes passe.

    So could Mormon intellectuals have a flexible agenda?

  10. HP on November 1, 2006 at 12:50 pm

    Adam,
    I agree wholeheartedly with your number 1. I wonder about how it could be effectively created. For one thing, the problem with the perception of competition is that it isn’t always internal. How does one insure that misconceptions don’t crop up?

    Nate,
    This is an interesting post. But I don’t see how it helps me make a decision in the upcoming elections.

  11. Ivan Wolfe on November 1, 2006 at 1:03 pm

    Given the criteria in the post, the problem with most intellectuals in general is that they don’t have intellectual agendas.

    For example, in my field (rhetoric), one of the big discussions is over the point of composition studies. One set feels the main point is to teach students how to read and write well. However, there is a rather large segment in composition studies that argues that since composition classes are one of the few classes most students will have to take at some point, then we should be radicalizing our students. This is somewhat simplified (this is a blog comment after all), but this is not a small segment in this area.

    I’ve heard many a fellow graduate student and professor even say “this is our real chance to purge the conservativsm from our students. Everything else in society gives them the conservative viewpoint, but we have a chance to make sure they walk away radicals.” And that quote is one of the tamer ones I’ve heard.

    There are many other instances across the academy in many fields. But the very nature of many theoretical groups (Marxist, Feminist, Queer, etc.) indicates that their concerns are often not primarily intellectual, but actually political.

  12. Septimus on November 1, 2006 at 1:37 pm

    One of the distinguishing features of Christianity is the necessity for “belief.� This is a stark contrast to many other world religions where personal thought about God is immaterial to the ability to achieve salvation. This is also a contrast to the religious minds of antiquity who by their nature were innovators, defying tradition. If Socrates admonished us to “question everything,� Christianity is sometimes understood to mandate that we “question nothing.�

    In my mind, the problem facing “Mormon Intellectualism� is more fundamental than lacking an “agenda.� The problem is rather justifying its existence at all. It appears to be unnecessary to achieve salvation. Presumably those without advanced degrees in theology will also be saved. Indeed, there are many scriptural examples of intellectualism as a vice and by contrast, relatively few in which it was a virtue. And while questioning can seem essential to spiritual development, it can also be perceived as a challenge to the admonition to “believe.� If “Mormon Intellectualism� can better define its place in our quest for spiritual enlightenment the “agenda� will take care of itself.

  13. Nate Oman on November 1, 2006 at 2:21 pm

    Thanks everyone for your comments. As TT points out, I am clearly using “intellectual agenda” in a fairly narrow way here. I am not suggesting that pastoral or political discussions are not intellectual in the sense of involving sophisticated cogitation. Rather, my point is that their primary goal is less intellectual understanding than achieving some political or spiritual goal. As I said, these are clearly important issues and there is no problem in my mind per se in being concerned about them. They are all questions that I am concerned about in one way or another.

    However, I do think that Mormon scholarship requires more than these things. It seems to me that we can study Mormonism in basically two ways. First, we can look at it as a religious/theological system that makes various religious truth claims and our concern should be the elucidation and evaluation of those truth claims. In that case, our concern with studying Mormonism is essentially theological and it seems to me that we should forthrightly do theology rather than having our theological discussions guised in the form of methodological debates about how to do history.

    Second, we can look at Mormonism as a historical or social phenomena and our goal should be to understand it as such. Given this approach, it seems to me that we ought to be having debates about what sorts of theories best explain historical or social events. To be fair, there are folks that have such debates in Mormon studies, but it strikes me that such debates occupy a distinctly second-class status in many Mormon intellectual circles. Taking the bloggernacle as a rough and ready approximation, does anyone doubt that a thread on ways to increase the institutional power of women would garner much more attention than one on evaluating Marvin Hill’s claim about Mormonism as a flight from pluralism in the context of Nathan Hatch’s argument about the democraticization of American Christianity?

    To be sure, much (perhaps all) scholarship has some political edge to it, but I heartily reject the claim that all scholarship is political. Furthermore, it seems to me that many of the scholars who push such a claim most aggressively end up painting themselves into a dead end. Having jettisoned the ideal of the pursuit of understanding for its own sake, they are left with politics. But how much political power does an article in a scholarlly journal have really? How much actual political power do the rhetoricians that Ivan mentions actually have?

    Contrary to what TT suggests, I am not looking for a rational actor model of Mormonism. What I am interested in is increase prominence for debates about the relative explanatory power of various approaches to Mormonism. Virtually all of the discussion produced by Bushman’s recent biography, for example, centered around the question of whether or not Bushman, as a believing Mormon, could really be trusted to tell the story of Mormonisms founder and whether he had shaded the facts to fit correlated history. My point is that there is a sense in which this is an intellectually trivial discussion. Yet these sort of discussions are what pass for an intellectual paradigm for much of Mormon studies.

    A final example: I recently read an article published a number of years ago on a semi-prominent historical figure who left the Church. It was a well-researched, well-documented piece of work. It told the story of the man’s life in a very responsible and workmanlike way. When the article reached the “so what” phase, however, the author’s central thesis turned out to be that one can leave the Mormon Church and nevertheless live a happy and productive life. That was it. Think, for a moment, about the sorts of intellectual ambitions that are contained in such a thesis. They are wholly political and pastoral. Furthermore, they are in some sense banal. We don’t need the elaborate scholarlly apparatus of archival research and documentation to reach such a conclusion. It struck me as sad that so much effort had been expended on the research — which was clearly of quite a high quality — but that the author had apparently little desire to go much of anywhere with it.

  14. William Morris on November 1, 2006 at 2:38 pm

    I don’t know that I have a real intellectual agenda, but there a few key questions that I am interested in exploring:

    1. How exactly does Mormon culture function among members of the LDS Church and what does it say about what we are (a religion, a culture, an ethnos, a people?)?

    2. What have been and what could be the use of Mormon materials in the creation and consumption of art? I’m especially interested in speculative projects. We need more artistic manifestos and literaturstreits [the recent one surrounding Richard Dutcher which led to competing op eds from Chris Heimerdinger and Eric Samuelsen was fantastic (from a critic's point of view -- it also was somewhat damaging to the field)].

    3. What factors have contributed to the creation and development of the Mormon market and what might the market look like in the near future?

    4. What does Mormon culture *do* with other cultures (esp. American culture — both mainstream and highbrow)? How does/can it act upon and was/is/will be acted upon by other cultures? What sorts of hybrids form when Mormon culture collides with other cultures?

    My underlying project behind all of this is an attempt to show that because of our peculiar culture, theology and history — in spite of its similarities with other cultures (religions, ethnic, national) — any model that seeks to explain Mormon culture is going to need to be wholly unique because Mormon culture is unique.

    Of course, my hope is that others will do the work on all this for me, and I can be a blogger and just sit back on comment on the work. :-P

  15. Nate Oman on November 1, 2006 at 2:41 pm

    William Morris: Your questions strike me as an intellectual agenda ;->. Please keep at it!

    “the recent one surrounding Richard Dutcher which led to competing op eds from Chris Heimerdinger and Eric Samuelsen was fantastic ”

    Do you have a link or reference for this exchange?

  16. Nate Oman on November 1, 2006 at 2:48 pm

    “I agree wholeheartedly with your number 1. I wonder about how it could be effectively created. For one thing, the problem with the perception of competition is that it isn’t always internal. How does one insure that misconceptions don’t crop up?”

    This strikes me as a very important question. I suspect that a great deal of it has to do with tone as well as the stories that one tells about one’s own project. For example, less public discussion about how one is sharply disagreeing with the white-washed history of correlation needn’t imply that one’s work is correlated or wholly agrees with correlated history. On the other hand, the absence of such public hand wringing (or preening) does a great deal to dial back tensions between intellectual discussion and the church.

    I think that HP is right to point out that the problem of setting up intellectual discourse as competition with the church has both an internal and an external aspect. The two are connected but not perfectly, and there is a lot of needless suspicion in Mormondom about intellectual discussion. I’d point out that there is also a lot of needless paranoia among many Mormon intellectuals about the Church, the Brethren, Salt Lake, and the like. Everyone needs to just chill out.

  17. Matt W. on November 1, 2006 at 2:56 pm

    I think a major problem with mormon intellectual discussion is similar to the problem of all intellectual discussion. Everyone thinks they are the intellectual one making the intellectual statment, when in fact most of us are just stupid people with stupid opinions.

  18. Nate Oman on November 1, 2006 at 3:00 pm

    “in fact most of us are just stupid people with stupid opinions. ”

    Speak for yourself! I am an intellectual making an intellectual statement ;->

  19. Matt W. on November 1, 2006 at 3:33 pm

    I’d speak for myself if I could, but since I am typing this on a computer, I can’t…

    I don’t mind the term pseudo-intellectual, and I am pretty sure that is the genre I fall into…

  20. Matt W. on November 1, 2006 at 3:35 pm

    Nate: It just occurred to me that that last comment may come across the wrong way. I hope I am understood by all to be speaking in generalities and not attacking you. I think you (in the context of these blogs, which is the onyl context I know you in) are interesting. I just think the label intellectual isn’t very useful.

  21. William Morris on November 1, 2006 at 4:14 pm

    Chris Heimerdinger’s Deseret News op ed

    Eric Samuelsen’s response

    There are quite of few other sources and discussions feeding into and out of this filmstreit, including articles on Dutcher’s comments at Sunstone and the LDSBA convention as well as on Heimerdinger’s first film, etc.

    But these are the two core documents.

  22. Ivan Wolfe on November 1, 2006 at 5:36 pm

    Rather, my point is that their primary goal is less intellectual understanding than achieving some political or spiritual goal. As I said, these are clearly important issues and there is no problem in my mind per se in being concerned about them. They are all questions that I am concerned about in one way or another.

    To be sure, much (perhaps all) scholarship has some political edge to it, but I heartily reject the claim that all scholarship is political. Furthermore, it seems to me that many of the scholars who push such a claim most aggressively end up painting themselves into a dead end. Having jettisoned the ideal of the pursuit of understanding for its own sake, they are left with politics. But how much political power does an article in a scholarlly journal have really? How much actual political power do the rhetoricians that Ivan mentions actually have?

    Nate – I was not claiming all scholarship is political (if you weren’t addressing me, then ignore me), nor do I think it should never be political. My main concern is, given what you say, that this problem is not particular nor very pronounced among Mormon intellectuals.

    How much actual power do Mormon intellectuals have?

  23. Clark on November 1, 2006 at 5:38 pm

    One place I think you might be overstating your case is due to the silly (IMO) Kuhn vs. positivist debate in history. Admittedly it’s primarily found in the writings of just a handful of folks. And I think FARMS is unfairly painting as focusing on this too much whereas when you look at the actual number of writings on the topic it’s fairly small. But it is there.

    Adam’s point about the question of Being is interesting, but difficult to really deal with since it seems LDS revelation doesn’t address it. So you’ll really just have a debate based upon everyone’s preconceptions. Dualism is out of favor, unlike in B. H. Robert’s days so folks tend towards monism. Further I’m not sure that monism offers much by way of practical implications since we just create a materialist dualism. (i.e. from ontological dualism to a dualism of material kind)

  24. Clark on November 1, 2006 at 5:43 pm

    Just to add one dominate intellectual agenda that’s worked through all aspects of Mormon scholarship (believing and unbelieving alike) is the reconciliation of Mormon belief with science. Arguably FARMS is what ushered this in as a dominate methodology. I’d further argue that to a certain extent it colors Signature as well.

  25. Western DAve on November 3, 2006 at 11:38 am

    Nate,
    By conflating Mormon studies with Mormon intellectuals your missing a big piece of the action. For those of us who are not LDS but are involved in Mormon studies (because, let’s say, we work on the 20th century American West), most of the issues you describe are largely moot. Rather, some of the key questions become: for geographers: the connections between landscape and identity (Francaviglia (sp?), comes to mind) and internal migrations. For pomo types: the complexity of identity. Environemtnal studies: Terry Tempest Williams studies. and so on.
    It isn’t a unified agenda, but it is coherent in the sense of juxtaposing (or balancing?) local and national commitments.

  26. Nate Oman on November 3, 2006 at 3:01 pm

    Western Dave: I agree with you that there are those in Mormon studies that are pursuing research agendas that are unrelated to pastoral or political agendas. My point was simply that a large swath of Mormon intellectual discussion has remarkably limited intellectual ambitions.

  27. Alison Moore Smith on November 3, 2006 at 5:13 pm

    I want to know who gets to decide who the “Mormon Intellectuals” are. Then I’ll decide if I care whether or not they have an agenda.

  28. Adam on November 3, 2006 at 5:45 pm

    Re: #23. I wonder, Clark, if the very reason why would should experimentally/speculatively take up the fundamental ontological questions is because we don’t have a lot to go on. If it were already decided, what would be left to say? Speculatively, my interest would be to see how each of the possibilties cashes out – what can they show us about Mormonism? – rather than trying to decide the issue. I also wonder if we don’t underestimate how rich and productive this kind of question can be: if meaning is produced by making connections explicit, then ontology may be particularly meaningful in attempting to link all kinds of different things in novel and fundamental ways.

  29. Nate Oman on November 4, 2006 at 11:39 am

    “I want to know who gets to decide who the “Mormon Intellectualsâ€? are.”

    Me ;->

  30. Paul on November 5, 2006 at 4:43 pm

    If, by \”intellectual agenda,\” you mean an organized attempt to discover truths by analyzing testable hypotheses against the evidence for or against those hypotheses, perhaps the problem is simply this. Matters of faith, by definition, exist independently of evidence (both a lack of evidence for, or in spite of evidence to the contrary). This being the case, the only items that can effectively be examined in such a way are largely within the areas you mention — since they don\’t involve essential issues of faith (or, at least, to a significantly lesser degree). All else (which is the vast majority of Mormon doctrinal issues) would therefore be immune to such an agenda, and would simply be idle speculation under such an attempt.

    In other words, Mormon intellectuals are simply analyzing all that faith permits them to, within the boundaries prescribed by intellectual honesty.

  31. Paul on November 5, 2006 at 5:41 pm

    Actually, to clarify that last bit — attempting such an analysis on an issue of faith would only be pointless “idle speculation” if the issue were still presumed to remain true, i.e., independent of any relevant evidence. Otherwise, the resulting conclusion would be that the claim is either unsupported, or untrue (in light of conflicting evidence) — and it would thus no longer be an issue of faith.

  32. queuno on November 5, 2006 at 7:47 pm

    #27 and #29 -

    It’s easy! You can’t be branded a Mormon intellectual until you’ve “sufffered for your art” and been disfellowshipped or excommunicated for your intellectualism. Because, you know, if you actually have a testimony or *believe* in the Church’s teaching you can’t be an intellectual.

  33. Jake on November 5, 2006 at 9:32 pm

    I couldn\’t have said it better myself, queuno. Heaven forbid those who fully use the brains they\’ve been given, in spite of the heavenly requirement of suspending or renouncing them.

  34. Kingsley on November 15, 2006 at 7:04 pm

    Three cheers for Jake, who goes about fully using his brains! Can you make things levitate? That’s awesome, kudos. I renounced my brain quite a few years ago. All my friends have suspended theirs. Depressing. Jake! Jake! Jake!

  35. Jake on November 22, 2006 at 9:50 pm

    Thanks for the cheers. Unfortunately, thinking seems to preclude actual levitation (yes, in spite of my copious wishful thinking!). I was going to ask if you’ve ever considered reclaiming yours, but realized that requires thought — a beastly pickle indeed!