In his recent First Things article, Ralph Hancock argues that it is vital to the mission of BYU that it produce scholarship articulating a distinctively Mormon worldview, as a major part of its regular work. What would it take for BYU to respond seriously to Hancock’s call? Hancock notes that there is much more one would need to consider on the way to concrete action than what he is able to say in a five page article.
As things stand, for such a large, well-funded, highly religious university, BYU is doing surprisingly little on this front. For the vast majority of BYU faculty, including in the humanities and social sciences, this is simply not included in their job description. Rather, what they will be recognized for professionally is scholarship done in the mode and according to the standards of the (secular) mainstream academic world.
It should go without saying that the production of scholarship is a core purpose of a modern university. If BYU is not producing scholarship that develops a well-informed, distinctively Mormon worldview, as a large and routine portion of its work, then as a Mormon university it is as though BYU is missing a leg. Further, because scholarship is the primary basis of university teaching, and there is no other comparable source for academic work developing a Mormon worldview, it is as though BYU is also missing an arm.
Why would BYU choose to go through life missing an arm and a leg? I can think of some reasons that Hancock does not go into in this article.
First, in order to produce scholarship about Mormonism, one needs faculty that have the skills and training to do this well. But there are no PhD programs, anywhere, that focus on this. At most there are a few places where one can mix in a few courses dealing with Mormonism as part of a mainstream graduate program, or find a faculty member who knows something about it, and even these are mostly quite recent.
Encouraging faculty to do scholarship in an area where they have little training is risky—their work may simply not be good enough to be worth the investment. Some may actually be harmful.
Second, normally scholarship is evaluated by journals and academic publishing houses before being published and disseminated, which provides crucial quality control. But the options for journals or publishers to help with this process are fairly limited as yet (though there are important things going on).
In other words, scholarship is normally done in the context of a extensive web of scholars and institutions that are essential to its flourishing, but BYU would be largely going it alone, at least initially.
Third, as we engage our faith using reason, we enter a space that already has some rather powerful, established players. Scholarship inherently involves debate, and it is not always obvious how we will fare in the debate. In the past, a number of Mormons who engaged with the intellectual traditions of other faiths have been strongly influenced by them, or even persuaded to leave Mormonism behind. Similarly, others may be heavily influenced by secular scholarship they have engaged with in their education or other work. This influence is not always bad, but there is a risk that Mormonism will not get a fair shake in a conversation with so many strong and loud voices coming from other perspectives.
Fourth, faith and reason are just plain tricky to get on the same page. Most universities began as rather religious places, but over time have been unable to maintain a harmony between faith and reason, with the result that faith has been marginalized. To think that BYU can succeed where so many have failed may seem a bit unrealistic.
As a result of all these factors, the chance that scholarship on Mormonism will be of poor quality, or will not really be as faithful to the Mormon tradition as it should be, comes to seem rather high. Indeed, (fifth) in scholarship generally, the ratio of poor scholarship to good scholarship is rather high. We have lots of misses, and fewer hits. But in other fields, the risks of going wrong are much smaller than they are in the case of religious matters. These risks are not merely imaginary-there are many concrete examples of these problems we could point to from the last few decades.
There is also the special challenge at BYU that, (sixth) because it is a church-sponsored school, students and general church members have a tendency to take professors’ views as representing those of the church, or to think that they should represent the church. There is a real risk of confusion between the authority of the church, under the leadership of prophets and apostles, and the very different role of a professor who is developing his or her own ideas. Students may accept a professor’s kooky ideas, thinking they are backed by the church, or become skeptical of the church because of some professor’s kooky ideas. Occasionally a professor may even go so far as to actively compete with church authority. Professors can be rather fond of their ideas.
Scholarship on Mormonism, then, is a high-stakes game in which the deck may seem to be stacked severely against us. In this situation, there is a serious argument to be made that discretion is the better part of valor. In my view, however, these arguments are not decisive. As the scripture says, they that be with us are more than they that be against us. We have truth on our side, and the call to serve God with our all our mind and heart, as well as our physical strength. We have a uniquely exciting and timely theology and beautiful moral teachings to explore and expound.
Simply avoiding the challenges is not a long-term strategy for BYU or the church. We need, and the world needs, the best work of our minds in understanding our faith and developing its implications. Waiting is likely to simply make the challenges harder. These challenges are, however, reasons to be careful and deliberate in laying the groundwork for success, proceeding in wisdom and order. As the scripture says, we should examine our resources and prepare carefully before we set about building a tower.
Much trailblazing has been done and continues to be done, both independently of BYU, or by people associated with BYU, on their own initiative. Ultimately I would like to see doing some scholarship on and expressive of Mormonism as a routine expectation of all faculty in the humanities and social sciences at BYU, and see some getting tenure primarily on the basis of such work. Before that expectation can make much sense, however, a number of things will have to be done to build up to it. Let’s get on the stick!