The Enlightenment and its legacy of reason applied to human affairs has been tough on religion. One would think this would apply with even more force to the LDS Church, given how recent are the founding miracles of Mormonism and how prominently they are featured in discussions of our history and practice. But most Mormons seem strangely unaffected by the modernist critique.
Richard L. Bushman discussed this surprisingly robust response of educated Latter-day Saints to modernism in his Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2008). I’ve posted on the book already (here, here, and here) but I don’t recall any discussion of it here at T&S. It certainly deserves a discussion. [Comment opportunity #1: Have you read the book and what did you think of it?]
The crux of the problem modernism has with religion is miracles or, more generally, allowing the supernatural to intrude from time to time into the natural world. Bushman notes the prevailing attitude that there is “no room in the modern world for angels.” His summary of the Mormon response:
Over the past century, the church has suffered the loss of many of its educated members, but probably no more than the seepage of believers at every level of education. Studies of church activity show that PhD-holding members are more likely to be fully engaged than high school graduates. Mormons feel that their founding miracles are no more unlikely than the other founding miracles of Christianity. All the revealed religions of the world begin with divine intervention in human life. … These miracles remain controversial centuries after they are purported to have occurred. Critics attribute them to illusion or legend; believers hold on to them as signs of God’s involvement in human affairs.
[Comment opportunity #2: Why are Mormons so unaffected by modernist talking points which are such a worry for Evangelicals, such as evolution and higher criticism?]
One possible answer might be found in the resources listed at the back of the book under the title “Web sites.” There are three entries listed under the category “Mormon intellectuals”: Times and Seasons, By Common Consent, and FAIR. I’m flattered, but not convinced. Here are the description blurbs provided for each of the three sites. Personally, I think there’s a little understated humor lurking between the lines (and in titling the list “Mormon intellectuals”).
- T&S: A blog with regular and invited authors and responses from anyone who is interested. Basically attracts faithful Mormons but ones with many, many questions.
- BCC: Like the above, this blog is sometimes irreverent but basically faithful. Also offers links to breaking LDS news.
- FAIR: An independent organization that tries to answer every criticism of Mormonism and present scholarly defenses of Mormon claims.
[Comment opportunity #3: Irreverent? Moi? And how could anyone describing T&S fail to note our Notes From All Over, yet be impressed by BCC's Google news feed?]
Perhaps irreverence is part of the answer to the modernist question. When we read about Zelph or hear the latest Three Nephites rescue story, we don’t wring our hands or write letters to the First Presidency … we tell jokes. Some would argue that humor is just a coping mechanism, but the latest thinking (see evolutionary psychology and neopragmatism) is that large chunks of the human reasoning apparatus are really just mechanisms for coping with real life and its many challenges. That’s what life is all about: coping. And Mormons are, for the most part, able to cope with both life and modernism.
Last item: Google “Mormon intellectual” and the first hit is this post from Mormon Momma. No stranger to SEO, I’ve tried to remedy that with the title to this post. [Comment opportunity #4: Perhaps I've underestimated Mormon Momma.]