Bootstrapping Mormon Studies, Part I

January 15, 2011 | 22 comments

There is enormous potential for intellectual life and intellectual culture within Mormonism. What can we do to bring this potential to fruition? What we see actually happening today are only tiny sprouts by comparison with what is possible, and what we must bring into being if the gospel is to fulfill its purpose as the organizing principle of a Zion society. How do we get from the minimal present state to where we need to go? This is the first of a series of posts considering the challenges Mormon intellectual culture faces, and ways these challenges might be overcome. I suggest that great things are possible, but only if we understand the challenges and patiently focus on the steps needed to move us toward our hopes.

The scriptures prophesy that the gospel will go forth to fill the Earth, bringing a reign of eternal peace. While it is difficult to know exactly how to fill in the implications of images such as the lion’s lying down with the lamb, it is clear that God’s revelations are intended to provide the principles not merely for individual righteousness but for establishing an ideal society. The gospel as we discuss and practice it today provides the most essential core principles, but if we compare the word of God to a mustard seed, it is still a rather modest sprout, far from a tree yet. The basis for a just, harmonious, and prosperous society is implicit in it, but it is a long way from becoming explicit.

At the moment it seems to me that Latter-day Saints are doing a reasonably good job of explicating and concretely realizing our core principles in the context of individual and family life, and in the functioning of the Church itself. This is not to say that there is not room for improvement, but we have done a lot to articulate how principles of love, faith, service, and so forth should be put into practice in these contexts, and to embody them in ways that are realistic and effective. In fact, I think it is fair to say that, as human efforts go, we have excelled in these areas, and no areas are more vital for the long-term success of the Church. If we cannot put the gospel into effect here, our other efforts will amount to little.

However, the gospel is not only a guide for running one’s personal or family life, and running the Church. The gospel is intended to be the basis for the ideal functioning of an entire society. This means it has distinctive implications for political institutions and arrangements, economic production and consumption, education, war and peace, as well as many more particular spheres of activity that are integral to an actual society. On these issues we have only begun to tease out the resources of the gospel, and until we have drawn them out, we have only realized a small portion of its full meaning and promise.

We can see from the scriptures that this is how past prophets understood the dimensions of the gospel. Moses in the desert both revealed and crafted political and legal arrangements for Israel that reflected the core principles of faith, justice, and love that lie behind the Ten Commandments. The peoples of Nephi, Mosiah, King Benjamin, Alma, Captain Moroni, and so on similarly set up governments, laws, policies of defense and religious freedom, and so forth, that reflected in various ways their basic beliefs and commitments to God. In the time of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the Latter-day Saints built whole cities and societies, with all the accompanying institutions, in their own distinctive way, on the foundation of the restored gospel. Presumably they did so with varying degrees of success and correctness, but they put a lot of thought, energy, and devotion into formulating institutions and practices that reflected and supported their faith, and allowed their faithful aspirations to be translated into social reality. Yet these were only the beginnings of the full promise of the gospel.

Christian principles have played an important role in various aspects of Western political thought over the centuries, and in particular movements with real impact, particularly in early communities in what became the United States of America. However, Latter-day Saints’ understanding of God, humanity, and the relationship between the two is in many ways radically different from that operating in traditional Christianity, and surely has novel implications.

Isaiah writes that “in the last days . . . the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains . . . And he shall judge among the nations . . . nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2: 2, 4). The gospel, then, is intended to be a recipe, or the kernel of a recipe, for world peace. If we don’t currently know what sorts of institutions, national and international laws, principles and practices would allow us to build and sustain world peace, we need to get on it. We need to work out how to put the Lord’s commandment to love into practice on a global scale. We know that this practice must begin in our homes and church meetings, but we cannot treat these as though they were also the complete goal. What we do there is only a portion of a much grander process.

That said, we do not only need to extend and elaborate what we already know about the core principles of the gospel. We need to dig deeper into those core principles, to find the resources they offer for this expansive effort. In 1832 the Lord was already chastising the Saints for neglecting the message of the Book of Mormon, so recently published (D&C 84:57), and not long ago, President Ezra Taft Benson informed us that we were still under this condemnation. Terryl Givens, in By the Hand of Mormon, suggests that things have not changed nearly enough since then, either, and we continue to treat the Book of Mormon primarily as a sign that God still speaks today, without actually working as we should to understand what it is he has said. We have been promised that “unto him that receiveth [God] will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have” (2 Nephi 28:30). I worry that we Mormons for the most part fall on the “We have enough” side. What we have is so great that we do not seem sufficiently hungry for more. If we think we have all the knowledge we need (and we seem to talk and act this way a lot), we are sorely lacking in imagination and probably have not properly thought things through. The small number of dramatically new truths revealed to the church since the time of Joseph Smith suggests that we have not sufficiently appreciated and pondered the revelations he brought us, so as to deserve more.

As I see it, the processes of digging deeper into our core texts and principles, and building higher and wider to improve a whole society, even a global society, are two sides of the same coin. As a mustard seed becomes a tree, its roots must grow down just as much as its trunk and branches grow up, and these deep roots are what support and enable its loftiness. Our knowledge of the gospel must become much deeper, as well as more expansive and more richly articulate.

How can we and should we magnify our efforts and develop our resources to respond to this grand calling? I’ll say more about that as the series goes on. For now, what do you think of this view of where we need to go?

22 Responses to Bootstrapping Mormon Studies, Part I

  1. Keith Held on January 15, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Cool thoughts (o: One small step would be to build more church owned higher education institutions. Like a BYU Europe, BYU Asia, BYU Brazil etc.

  2. Bill of Wasilla on January 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    Keith – I say, a BYU Wasilla!

  3. Brad Dennis on January 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    You seem to be under the assumption that if members dug deeper into the gospel that its central message would become clearer and that they then would be more inclined to spread its message. There are a couple of problems with that notion.

    1. It assumes that LDS doctrine would be more centrally understood and widely agreed upon if people just explored it more. But it seems that the “gospel” has no shortage of people who explore it and attempt to explain it. The result has been an increase (not a decrease) in the variation of explanations of history and doctrine. A prime example of this occurred in the 1970s and 1980s when an increasing number of LDS scholars (particularly Michael Quinn, Lavinia Fielding Anderson, David P. Wright, Anthony Hutchinson, Ed Ashment, and others) did dig deep and came up with explanations that many in the church leadership found to be intolerable. As a result the church excommunicated them and vamped up their efforts towards correlating the curriculum of taught and acceptable doctrines and beliefs on history. Digging deep may not actually produce the unity that you are thinking of.

    2. It assumes that the gospel has been a unified whole from the dawn of time and continues to be. It is just that we followers don’t understand it. However, the “gospel” message appears to have been vastly different according to space and time (e.g. Paul and James in the NT). The problem with scripture is that it provides enough material for different and competing sides to buttress their claims. For instance both liberal and conservative LDS point to Jesus’ teachings to give weight to their arguments. The former emphasizes his plea for social justice and his rebuke of the Pharisees. The latter emphasize his strong stances against money changers in the temple and against divorce.

    3. It assumes that responsibility for spreading the gospel lie more upon the followers than the leaders. It is the other way around. The church leaders are more responsible for growth than the members. The leaders create the administration, decide which doctrines and historical points to emphasize and which to downplay, formulate policy, etc. Their decision-making has a much greater influence than the collective understanding of the members of the “gospel.”

  4. Mike S on January 15, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    This is a great idea and I would love to see it happen. A few comments:

    1) While building more church-owned institutions sounds nice, they are a tremendous drain on resources. The Church is very tight-lipped about things, but some reports are that BYU costs around $1 billion annually to run. A significant portion of the Church’s income (tithing) already goes to that, so I don’t know if there are the resources available to create other institutions on a comparable level.

    2) The Church is truly a hierarchal institution. Further revelations necessarily need to come from the top down. As members, we can try to do what we can to follow the teachings, but because we are mortal, we will ALWAYS necessarily fall short of our potential. If we have to wait for the general membership of the church to be “perfect” before our leaders give us any more canonized revelation, etc., we are in a Catch-22, as we will likely never be there, shy of the millennium.

  5. Brad Dennis on January 15, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    Another remark if I may indulge myself.

    Your way of thinking seems in a way akin to the old Persian concept of king-subject relations. It goes like this (This at least is the concept laid out specifically in Siyasatname by Nizam al-Mulk): God gives people a king on the condition that the people establish a just society. However once the society becomes unjust and contentious, God then removes the king from them. Hence it places the responsibility of forming a just society upon the people and not the king.

  6. Dave on January 15, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    Interesting thoughts, Ben. Your point seems to be that God has a political philosophy and that if we study the scriptures with enough diligence we will discover it. Some biblical writers were fairly sure God was committed to monarchy through the house of David. I doubt that’s the answer you are looking for. I am inclined to think that diligent study of the scriptures reveals God has no particular political philosophy — the ethics treated in the scriptures are generally about personal conduct, not conduct between states nor between state and citizen. I just don’t think there is a pot of gold waiting at the end of the Zion society rainbow, if only we could manage to get there.

  7. Ben Huff on January 15, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    Brad (#3, #5), you raise a number of very important and relevant issues. You have put your finger right on some of the challenges I think I need to address in this series. I’ll make a few preliminary remarks now.

    I’ll respond to this last one first (#5), perhaps because it is most enigmatic. Are you suggesting that God is waiting to send Christ as King until we establish a just society for him to rule? I don’t know if he is, but certainly think we should not just sit around and wait for a perfect king before we try to establish justice. I’m not sure what God’s plan is for how far we are to get, but I am sure that he wants us to work for good in every way we can, now. Certainly there is some sort of preparatory work that he means us to be doing. He hasn’t told us when he’ll be coming, but that’s all the more reason why we need to forge ahead with the task. The funny thing about the Persian idea you describe of course is the irony of supposing that people can build a just society without a just government, but it is just as unrealistic to think that a just government can simply waltz in and establish justice when the people are chaotic. Both sides have to pull their weight, and especially in a democracy there isn’t much excuse for the people to sit around waiting for someone else to make things happen.

    Now about your earlier comments (#3):
    1. I agree that divergence (and diversion), various kinds of error, and even heresy/apostasy can happen when people start digging into history and scripture, if things don’t go well (especially if they are not in touch with the Spirit). I also agree with your implicit suggestion that problems that happened in the past few decades have made a lot of people hesitant to do serious scholarship in these areas, or to encourage anyone else to do it (e.g. BYU encouraging faculty to do it–Mormon Studies is relatively thin on the ground there considering the kind of institution it is). However, diversion and error are just as possible in any field of scholarship. The trick is to bring some factors into play (e.g. peer review, for starters) that help to correct the problems. This is a very important subject I plan to address in more detail later in this series.

    2. I agree that there is “enough material” in the revelations we have received “for different and competing sides to buttress their claims.” This is actually exciting to me, and I believe it is a necessary part of the process of our learning, considering how radical God’s full message is. One of the special things about our church and our theology is, in my view, that it is especially well suited to accommodating a diversity of points of view and even schools of thought. I’ve explored this before, and will have more to say about it later in this series. The trick to unity on a global scale is not just unity, because there will always be enormous diversity, and we wouldn’t want to do away with it. The trick is getting the right roles and chemistry for both unity and diversity. Likewise with change across times and circumstances: God has revealed different things and in different ways for good reasons, and continues to do so. The key is getting the right chemistry of both stability and change.

    3. I just disagree on this one. Now I see better your point in #5. However, we are a kingdom of priests who are called to take the initiative in building the kingdom. It sounds like you’re saying we’ve been told to be slothful. That just can’t be the right approach. The idea that the members are supposed to passively wait to be told what to do is one of the major factors draining the life out of most Christian denominations today, if you ask me, and comes from a false idea of leadership. Again, though, a topic well worth addressing in more detail down the road.

    Thanks for the provocation!

  8. Ben H on January 15, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    Keith (#1), I am all in favor of more institutions of higher ed with a Mormon bent. For reasons such as those Mike S (#4) brings up, it would be tough for the Church to build more institutions like the BYUs in the near term (although as the Church grows, why not?). Independent institutions will have to pick up some of the slack, as SVU for instance is already doing. Ultimately, I would like to see a constellation of different institutions and efforts expanding on the good work the BYUs do in a few different ways, both under direct Church leadership and independently, including patterns somewhat like what we see among Catholic colleges and universities, most of which are not actually governed in any direct way by the Vatican.

    Mike, your second point is a very good reason why we can’t just plan on waiting for more revelation from the top. It won’t happen until the Church as a whole is in a different spot, ready for more, but the bigger the church is, the harder it is for the Church as a whole to progress in any particular direction. There are too many people being born and dying and joining the Church, so a lot of us will always be beginners. Nothing wrong with that; that’s the human condition. So what’s my plan? Again, a point well worth its own post! but it implies an important role for people who are not speaking for or to the Church as a whole, but just working as members with the Spirit.

  9. Brad Dennis on January 15, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    Ben, thanks for the detailed reply. I look forward to reading your future posts in this series.

    To explain my remark in #5 (although you appear to have better understood my intended message later in your reply), I said this in response to your statement:

    “The small number of dramatically new truths revealed to the church since the time of Joseph Smith suggests that we have not sufficiently appreciated and pondered the revelations he brought us, so as to deserve more.”

    Your idea here seems to imply that receipt of revelation by the institutional heads is contingent upon the followers/members’ adherence to the instructional counsels in the revelation. Upon followers’ deviance from revelatory counsel, God will discontinue revelation through the prophet as punishment. In other words the prophet is infallible within the context of the words of the revelation and in the method of transmission to the followers (although the prophet does possess human frailties). My argument is that this sort of resembles the Persian model of kingship: that the king is God’s infallible emissary whose rules and judgments are God’s will and society’s ills are the fault of society itself rather than king’s administration. (And no, I don’t agree at all that the Persian model of kingship is an accurate reflection of how the king/society or leader/follower relationship should be).

    You are correct in saying the government consists of members of the society and that “both sides have to pull their weight.” However, your argument generally begs the question of who is take the initiative. Is collective initiative the sum of all individual initiatives? Would multiple and simultaneous individual initiatives from church members inherently have the same thrust and direction, or is there bound to be some sort of a split which would undermine the initiative itself? My point is that the church leaders have a distinct role in relation to society and their followers, and that they are also to be held accountable to them. Certainly individuals have a responsibility as well, but the ideas of the leaders, the ways in which they transmit and enforce the ideas, and the structure that they create for followers plays a significant role in the trends of belief, behavior, and adherence of the members in relation to the church. In fact it is the church leadership that defines the criteria for believing, behaving, and belonging in the church. It may be able to accommodate a degree of diversity within those three categories, but it must draw a cutting off point somewhere.

    Yet your post and reply to comments do not appear to address the role of leadership in actually formulating what the “gospel” is, in either emphasizing or downplaying ideas and doctrines, and in directing its members. If the “gospel” is so misunderstood or superficially interpreted by the members, as you suggest, then isn’t it the responsibility of leadership to restructure, reform, or restate in order to effectuate changes in society and its membership? Ultimately it appears that you assume the words of God to be clear as manifest in the scriptures. In my view the scriptures are best viewed as human attempts to understand God or speak for God, but are often influenced by the surrounding political and social questions of a particular time and place. God’s word is partially reflected in the scriptures, but ultimately scriptures are words created by humans, which are best understood in political and social contexts.

  10. DavidH on January 15, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    I struggle with the notion of Mormon political science or philosophy or most anything. This is because I believe Mormonism encompasses all truth, and truth is knowledge of things as they were, are and will be. I am inclined to believe that all fields of study–engineering, mathematics, evolution, physics, psychology, philosophy–are in fact Mormon studies. In fact, I would venture to say that religious studies, Jewish studies, Catholic studies, Buddhist studies, etc . . . are all encompassed, in a sense, within the umbrella of Mormon studies.

  11. Ben H on January 15, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Brad (#9), I do think that some sort of leadership needs to play a role if we are to make a lot of progress on these issues. However, for the purposes of this series, I am going to basically assume that the Church leadership will just keep doing the kinds of things they are doing right now. I think they have a big enough job running the church, keeping the missionary program going, building temples, watching out here and there for political hazards, etc. If they decide to take some new steps that bear on my goals, great, but I don’t think it’s fair to expect them to do everything, and in some cases, “they” are “us.” I mean, the LDS Church is mainly run by the members. That means the leadership involved, beyond just the level of lots of individual members doing their best, will be more or less entrepreneurial. SVU is an example of a successful (though still in the building stages) entrepreneurial project in this sense, designed to complement existing programs and meet needs beyond what existing programs are able to do. Of course there are leaders there, but they aren’t appointed by the Church; they are leaders just like the leaders of any other independent organization, but operating in a way that is deeply informed both by the gospel and by the needs of the LDS community. In other words, a significant amount of what I have in mind will fall under a category we could call “parachurch.” There’s a lot of this in the larger Christian scene, and in some cases we (the official Church) even partner with them (e.g. Catholic Relief Services–though that one appears to be a bit more official than a classic parachurch organization). We need our own parachurch.

  12. Cody on January 15, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    I like your thoughts, Ben. Thanks for sharing them. I have some doubt about the practical value of the gospel, but I’m not sure why. Maybe because it’s been done so badly so many times and when it seems to have been done well we are left with precious few details about how it all worked (City of Enoch, Nephites post-Christ.) I think I’ve lost faith in what might be termed a naive spiritual naturalism. (I don’t mean naive in a derogatory way but I can’t think of a better phrase.) I think the most prominent example of this type of thought is Brigham Young (and his thought in this matter is still present at his namesake university.) This approach goes something like this: Need to learn the times tables? Then learn them with the spirit. Since all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole, there will be no conflict between revealed truths and truths known through reason, empirical observation, or any other means. Furthermore, revealed truth and any other truth ought to and will mutually support and deepen one another.

    The problem, as I see it, is not that all truth cannot be circumscribed in to one great whole. The problem is deciding what counts as truth. Because every truth claim rests on a scaffolding of assumptions, truths are never simply what meet the eye. I would argue that what appear to be “eternal” non-revealed truths are pragmatic constructions that are thoroughly human. (You could also argue that revealed truths are pragmatic constructions, but I’m not going there right now.) Point is that since I believe that truths happen in active embodied relational ways (and not in passive, metaphysical, determinist ways), and truths are dynamic and changing depending on the human context in which they are “discovered”, it is hard to square apparently static revelation with human comings and goings outside of the spiritual sphere. I suppose one solution to this problem is to understand revelation in a flexible, dynamic, culture-infused process sort of way rather than a stone tablet from the mountain sort of way. But I think there is a strain of thought within church membership, for all our talk of an open-cannon, that the highest truths are eternal laws and principles that are passive, metaphysical, and deterministic. There is certainly historical precedent, clear scriptural precedent, and current (mormon studies) historical scholarship and theological/philosophical scholarship for other ontologies within the chruch, but I would say that that one is dominant right now.

    I think this leaves me deeply divided about how to best apply the gospel. On one hand, I believe that God can and does directly interact with humanity and reveals truths to us ask we appropriately prepare ourselves and ask for them. On the other, this process is either understood so poorly or is so easy to abuse that it has little large-scale value (like the kind you are interested in) and won’t until, maybe, the millennium. But I could be wrong.

  13. Ben H on January 15, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    Thanks, Cody. I hear you on your uncertainty about the practical value of the gospel. Of course, the lack of details on the City of Enoch and such are part of why we have work to do. On the other hand, it is not obvious that whatever recipe they followed would quite do the trick today, either. For starters, there would be questions arising due to technology and the global scale that probably didn’t arise for Enoch. There may be things we need to get “of our own nation and tongue,” so to speak.

    Perhaps part of your concern about spiritual naturalism is that it seems too simple, but even listening to the Spirit I think normally takes work. At least, there is usually only so much we can just plain hear, and anything more elaborate requires working out.

    I hear you on the one great whole issue, too, but here’s a counter-proposal: the whole into which truth can be circumscribed is too big for most of us, most of the time, to see all at once. It’s a bit like the globe, perhaps, which requires quite a bit of travel to cover. And of course, anything that is only a partial truth may or may not fit very well with the rest, even though at any given time we may not have anything better to swap for it, either.

    I completely agree that a lot of the truth has to be embodied rather than crystallized into a creed or something, and this makes the whole less transparent, even if it is still whole.

    I do think that we have an enormous amount of work to do to get the much more expansive version of the truth that I am talking about in this post, and the process of getting it is itself going to take some thinking and doing. But as for the millennium, well, that may just be what I am talking about. It may take a while to get there, but we may as well get to work.

    When we have only been looking at the truth in an individual and local way, it is hard to see in anything but the vaguest or most poetic ways (lion and the lamb . . .) how it would work on a much larger scale. Many of us, for much of our lives, have our hands full applying it to our own individual selves, and by the time we go on to try to apply it to a family as well, and some portion of a ward, and to set even some basic principles regarding our work in the wider world, we’ve done about as much as we can do. I’m asking a lot, but I think there is a lot to be found if we start applying and unfolding the gospel in a larger context.

    Of course, to a significant extent our leaders have been looking at the truth in a global context, at least with regard to the Church as a kind of society itself, and they have been making some adjustments to our practice that I think are really smart, even if they haven’t been talking about them as some sort of new doctrine. Fundamentally they are an unfolding of core principles we all know and talk about all the time, after all, but new ways of projecting them into practice.

  14. Brad Dennis on January 16, 2011 at 1:34 am

    Ben, thanks for clarifying your points. I do like the notion of a parachurch.

  15. Jared T. on January 16, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Quick question. How are you defining and using the phrase “Mormon Studies” in this series? Thanks.

  16. Mark D. on January 16, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    For Mormon Studies to be of more than historical interest, it has to involve the possibility of a distinctively Mormon approach to all substantive moral and philosophical questions. If you study revelations, but are unwilling to examine the reasons behind them, then Mormon Studies is as dead as a doornail, because there is nothing to study.

    This is why the College of Religion seems to be so intellectually impoverished – it is primarily involved in the creation of publications that are intellectually vacuous. More or less collections of quotes, and position papers, with occasional historically ungrounded theological speculations thrown in. At best, very detailed history, but no actual theology.

    In my opinion you cannot even begin to understand the current state of Mormon theology (in detail) without making a close examination of theological history for the past two thousand years. We treat nearly all of it as error and superstition while it simultaneously governs nearly everything we think and speculate about on religious questions.

    That is the problem with a strictly “revealed religion”. The question is does God command things because they are right (meaning natural theology has merit) or are they right because God commands them, meaning Mormon Studies is nothing more than butterfly collection.

  17. Ben Huff on January 16, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    I basically agree, Mark D (#16). I think the devotional purpose of Religious Ed. at BYU is very important, and I think they do a pretty decent job at that, especially considering there is nowhere to get training (e.g. a graduate degree) that directly addresses what they are trying to do. But I agree we need to be willing to think about (“study out“) the reasons for what God has told us, in something like the mode of natural theology, to make much progress in understanding.

    I agree that our inattention to Western (especially Christian) thought prior to Joseph Smith has been a huge problem. Fwiw, there are a decent number of people lately, including some of my friends, who are working on remedying this. Miranda Wilcox and John Young, for example, are working on the medieval period. Dennis Potter has a nice article on how our popular conception of atonement is nearly monopolized by Anselm. Terryl Givens’ book, When Souls Had Wings is a great example of a major exploration of the tradition with a sympathetic eye. Actually, I guess a lot of my work also falls into a similar category, retrieving insights from Aristotle, Greek and Hellenistic philosophical thought more generally, and Confucian thought.

    Jared T. (#15), a quick characterization of what I have in mind as Mormon Studies might have two parts: (a) disciplined study of the Church, its doctrines (scriptures, words of prophets, etc.), and its people (incl. sociology), culture (incl. art, literature, etc.) and history; plus (b) the study of anything and everything in a way that is informed by a Mormon perspective (particularly by distinctively Mormon theology, cosmology, and theological anthropology). DavidH (#10), maybe this is a response to your thoughts as well; I think I’m sympathetic.

  18. Kent Larsen on January 16, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Keith Held (1), you might look at:

    for a discussion of where we are today. There are two additional efforts at founding small colleges in the U.S. and one nascent attempt at an institution in Argentina.

  19. Adam Greenwood on January 17, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    Exciting, Ben H.

    I share your belief that Mormonism has enormous intellectual, cultural, and artistic potential. I share your goal of tapping into it. What I don’t share, yet, is your belief that we can rationally plan how to do it.

    1. Do we have any idea what leads to cultural and intellectual flowerings? You’re saying here that we should learn from the gentiles and build on what they’ve already done. I agree. We should probably start by looking at what scholars have been able to figure out about what makes a time or a place explode creatively. The short answer, as best as I can tell, is that nobody really knows.

    2. Can subcultures really have flowerings? Mormons are a few grains of salt in the vast porridge of the west. There’s the example of the American Jews, but I question the extent to which that flowering was specifically Jewish. You seem to want something that is more directly tied to Mormonism here, and rightly so, because otherwise a Mormon flowering is only interesting from a ‘yay, Team Mormon!’ standpoint. I suspect that to get the kind of thing you want, you really need to create some distinct Mormon space that doesn’t really exist right now. And you probably need to halt or even reverse the Mormon trend towards assimilating–but there are good, even gospel and proselyting reasons, for this trend. This gets back to my old hobbyhorses of the possibility for Mormons to allow for social experiments, attempts to create little Mormon utopias, and the possibility for temple art that goes beyond just permanent paintings (painting exhibits, music, literature, essays, etc, that are confined to the temple, perhaps even to the celestial room).

    3. Newton said he was a dwarf on the shoulder of giants. Our perspective of history tends to overlook all the drudgery and fallow periods and just focus on the greats. Maybe we’re too impatient with Mormon matters. Maybe thinking about how to create a flowering is a waste of time and we’d be better off trying to do scholarship or art in some corner of the vineyard, thus creating the store of intellectual and artistic capital that has to be there for a genius to exploit, or he or she can’t be the genius.

    4. The Renaissance was partly touched off by the exposure to classical texts through the offices of Byzantine scholars and others. We probably don’t have new worlds like that available to us–unless we get significant new revelation. So maybe chipping away at the art and scholarship problem is too direct. Maybe he who loses his direct approach to that problem will find a solution. In other words, maybe the answer is that we need to be focused on righteousness individually and collectively, so that God might reveal new songs to us, and new gifts of the Spirit.

    5. Maybe God doesn’t care about art and scholarship. I mean, I believe they are good and I assume God likes good stuff, by definition. Prophets counsel us to enjoy good art, the feelings and thoughts I’ve had in contemplating good art, in reading good literature, and in trying to create it myself, have been edifying and spiritual, etc.. But take C.S. Lewis points that art, architecture, even civilization as such is ephemeral compared to the life of the soul. What if the real beauty that God cares about creating is the purified and redeemed, the exalted and holy, the Christlike, the Godlike soul? What if He views our art the way we’d view Michaelangelo’s card tricks–pretty in a way but a distraction from what he should really be about? Perhaps the banal activities that consume our life and don’t see all that creative and profound to us are to God like someone sharpening tools for a master sculpture instead of doing some sketching.

  20. Mark D. on January 18, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    “Mormon Studies” aside, I would be delighted if church manuals weren’t all written like they were intended for junior high school students. As of late, I am starting to think that (procedurally speaking) Mormonism is the second coming of German Pietism. There is enormous value in that of course, but perhaps also some characteristic weaknesses – disregard for scholasticism in particular.

    I don’t see how Mormon Studies can maintain anything other than a critical position without something like a new scholasticism, even if it is only incidentally supported or recognized by the institutional church.

  21. Ben H on January 22, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    Hm. Adam (#19), good questions. As with many of the other questions on this thread, many of these deserve a post of their own. Here are some brief thoughts for now.

    1. You are probably right that nobody knows what leads to cultural and intellectual flowerings. Still, I think one major factor would be the enormous richness and freshness of Mormon theology and cosmology. We have the material; now the question is how to capitalize on it. There may be a bunch of factors I don’t have in mind, but there are some specific obstacles as I see it, and I have ideas about what it would take to eliminate or circumvent those obstacles. I guess I’m assuming there is potential there to be unleashed if the obstacles are removed. I have a few years’ worth of initial steps in mind. Who knows where things would go after that . . .

    2. Yes, there would need to be more distinct Mormon space. However, modern transportation and communication technology allows subcultures to have a lot more cohesion and shared life, while being geographically dispersed, than ever before, so perhaps these will help. Also, there are spaces that could do more for us (like BYU), if they decided certain things were a good idea.

    3. I hear you on the role of patience. I’m prepared for it to take a few hundred years for things to unfold. It’s hard to see how anything significant on a global scale could take less time than that. I still think it’s worth asking what the next step might be to let things move forward.

    4. Huh? Adam, how about the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants? Those are the new worlds I’m thinking of. I think we have only barely started thinking them through. If we don’t realize how fresh they are, we need to look more closely. But yes, at some point additional revelation would help, too.

    5. I certainly think souls are what God cares about fundamentally. I think our souls are shaped by decisions and experiences that take place in the context of ideas and institutions, though. That is why there is a gospel and a church. To the extent that scholarship and educational institutions shape people’s thinking and the other institutions they form, we need to make them as good as we can.

  22. Adam Greenwood on January 24, 2011 at 10:28 am

    On your #2, I’m agnostic whether virtual community can substitute for real community and shared material culture. Dunno. Agreed about BYU.


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