Raising an Ensign: Challenges of Scholarship on Mormonism at BYU

February 18, 2014 | 29 comments
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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!

29 Responses to Raising an Ensign: Challenges of Scholarship on Mormonism at BYU

  1. Xenophon on February 18, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    Good discussion. What does “doing scholarship” mean? What is the purpose of doing it? “Third, as we engage our faith using reason…” What about engaging our reason using faith? For that matter, why have universities at all? It’s for sports, right? Aren’t most universities just businesses (soon to be exclusively online businesses) aimed at turning a profit? Or are they government tools for inculcating ideologies and disseminating propaganda? The ancient academy and lyceum have vanished, scholasticism has disappeared, and liberal learning is fast becoming a relic. What is the purpose of the modern university if not to promote ideologies dressed in what Nibley referred to as the “black robes of the false priesthood”?

  2. Steve Smith on February 19, 2014 at 2:52 am

    Bold proposal, Ben. Of course, Ralph Hancock is also quite bold. I would like to see more scholarship on Mormonism myself. It would be great to have more BYU professors involved. But is a distinctly Mormon perspective really possible in all disciplines? I can’t imagine the possibility of distinct Mormon perspective on Russian literature or medieval art. Furthermore, as you mention, it may be that an increasing number of professors at BYU aren’t terribly invested in traditional Mormon belief, at least not to the extent that they used to be. Many of them might subscribe to more of a moralistic therapeutic deism when it comes to religion. It seems that Hancock doesn’t like this and wants the LDS church to essentially religify, traditionalize, or re-Mormonize the scholarship at BYU; steer professors from the tides of secularism and liberalism (however he defines those), which he believes are eroding Mormon society. I believe what Hancock is proposing may actually be counterproductive. Mormonism, in my impression, is under threat and it’s best chance of survival is by emphasizing moralistic therapeutic deism and its compatibility with secularism. By revamping the push towards conservatism, BYU would risk alienating a quite large group of middle-pathers in the wider Mormon community. The Mormon church may find itself hard pressed to find traditionalist replacements for the middle-pathers. BYU needs fewer Donald Parrys (who wrote an article in the Ensign in 1998 chastising Mormons who did not accept the idea of a global flood) and more Eugene Englands.

  3. Jim Cobabe on February 19, 2014 at 3:03 am

    One important fact seems to be overlooked. Academic scholars at BYU are unanimous witness of the fusion of faith and reason. Contriving to create a separate discipline devoted to Mormonism would be superfluous.

  4. Ben H on February 19, 2014 at 7:27 am

    Xenophon, you may be right that liberal learning is fast becoming a relic at most universities, but in my view, BYU is one of our best hopes for sustaining the tradition of liberal education into the future. I for one received an extremely stimulating and illuminating, liberal education at BYU. Partly that was because I came in with an especially proactive approach to my own education, but it was there to be had, partly through well-designed requirements and offerings, but most of all because many of my professors were committed to taking up the most important questions about transcendent meaning and value in their courses, and were able to do so in a way that was highly meaningful to us as students because of the shared reference frame of Mormonism. One of my professors even chose to work at BYU, as a non-Mormon, because he felt he was able to address the deep questions that the humanities have traditionally explored in a more satisfying way with BYU students, who took questions of value and meaning very seriously, than he could have at most other places.

    Steve Smith, I believe that most BYU faculty are highly invested in Mormonism—true believers in the best sense (as I strive to be myself)—and would be glad to see it develop a more robust intellectual culture. Most of them already regard themselves as active contributors to this culture, through their teaching. I believe quite a few of them would be glad to contribute to this culture through their scholarship, if they felt they had the right opportunities (including having a good idea, the right skills, and appropriate venues and audience, as well as a work environment that supports it), even if they haven’t done a lot of that sort of thing so far.

    So if you’re suggesting that I don’t think there is enough interest among faculty at BYU to do Mormon scholarship well, and on a substantial scale, you have misread me. It would be easy to come away from Hancock’s article with the impression that he thinks BYU faculty overall are just not that interested in the life of the church—deep down, they really just want to please the secular mainstream. While I think there is an element of that, I think that is only a small part of the explanation, and I suspect Hancock would agree there is a lot more to it. I believe the many obstacles to doing satisfying scholarship on Mormonism, including the professional opportunity costs, are essential to understanding even those at BYU who would say they are just not very interested in Mormon Studies. The Mormon Studies scene just does not capture their interest in the way that the much larger, thriving (in its own way) world of mainstream scholarship does, but it’s not simply a question of the subject matter.

    Imagine a student who goes to a big university like BYU, with massive resources—multi-million dollar labs in which they can collaborate with professors on cutting-edge microbiology research, choirs and orchestras and theaters and dance ensembles of high quality performing in its halls every few days, course offerings in 30+ foreign languages and study abroad programs in over a dozen countries, a library big enough to house a small city . . . and then imagine if this student were invited to go back and study for a year at her old high school, or to teach at a small college that doesn’t even have a full orchestra . . . to some people, going into Mormon Studies would feel rather like that. Or like going from performing on a Steinway grand in front of thousands, to accompanying an amateur octet in a church meeting. They want to be part of something big and thriving, and Mormon Studies is at a much different stage of development. It is tough sledding sometimes.

    So while there is an element of wanting the approval of the mainstream, and simply going along in the track one was put in during graduate school, it is not just pride and lack of imagination that makes many people less than enthusiastic about investing a lot of energy in Mormon Studies. The infrastructure is just not there to a comparable degree at this point.

    But the dangers and costs Hancock talks about are real, and somehow or other we need to tackle these challenges for the church to fulfill its potential, and BYU is a key player in this. Is there enough motivation at BYU to do Mormon Studies in a serious way in the face of all these challenges, and to build the infrastructure up from its current limited state? I guess we’ll find out.

  5. mtnmarty on February 19, 2014 at 10:36 am

    Ben,

    Do you think that the leaders of the church believe that promoting mormon scholarship would change mormonism in a negative way by an increasing intellectualism and less authoritarianism in doctrine.

    The analogy I would make is what we have going on in the relationship of the US military to civilian leadership. Traditionally the military has been subject to civilian control as a means of trying to contain the influence of the military on politics. However, as the military has grown and has also been given tasks that are increasingly political such as nation-building they have become increasingly politically sophisticated and influential.

    Restricting BYU professors to traditional disciplinary pursuits prevents them from expanding their influence in what it means to be mormon and what mormon doctrine is.

    Effectively, explicitly paying BYU professors to do Mormon scholarship creates a payed clergy with all the sociological dangers payed clergies have always had.

    The risk of the CES is great enough without expanding it to the full faculty.

  6. Old Man on February 19, 2014 at 11:21 am

    I love BYU, and admire Ralph Hancock’s chutzpah , but do we REALLY want BYU scholars developing and articulating the Mormon worldview?

    I’m not sure that BYU possesses the talent pool to do that. I believe it would prove too distracting for other vital academic pursuits.

    The duty of developing and articulating a distinctively Mormon worldview falls upon the shoulders of ALL LDS thinkers, scholars and artists.

  7. Ben H on February 19, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Sure, mtnmarty, that is a reasonable concern, and I’m sure that church leaders have thought about it. But it looks to me like they think it is a manageable issue. Elder Ballard has encouraged us to go out and blog and so on, under our own guidance—doing many good things of our own free will. It’s a similar principle. It may have been Elder Ballard also who I remember saying so clearly a few years back that we need to offer more substantial fare in our church teaching, a sentiment reinforced by the recent, much more dense and thorough articles showing up in Gospel Topics on LDS.org. Elder Maxwell certainly was an enthusiastic proponent of what the Maxwell Institute was doing when it was organized (though its goals have shifted since then). The faculty in Religious Education are being encouraged to increase the quality and quantity of scholarship they produce, and to hire more people with the skills to do it. So I think there is support from above, if it is done right.

    Old Man, we certainly don’t want it to be exclusively BYU’s business, but if BYU hires most of the promising young Mormon scholars and then tells them not to do Mormon Studies, it will seriously dampen Mormon intellectual life as a whole.

  8. Dave on February 19, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Ben H, nice discussion of both the desirability of BYU playing a stronger role in the developing field of Mormon Studies and some of the institutional difficulties preventing that from happening.

    A quick question: Is the work presently being done by the new Maxwell Institute, Interpreter, scholarly religion conferences sponsored by BYU, and independent scholarship published in Dialogue, JMH, BYU Studies, and other journals and books not more or less what you are calling for? Many BYU faculty are involved in these efforts. What else needs to be done besides getting the administration at the university, college, and departmental level to stop penalizing this kind of Mormonism-focused scholarship that is already occurring?

  9. Ben Huff on February 19, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Based on your comment, Dave, maybe my acknowledgment of the challenges facing Hancock’s aspirations (and mine, on BYU’s behalf, fwiw, tho I’m not there) has addressed a lot of the reasons for your skeptical comment on the other thread. As I say on the other thread, I think the scholarship you mention generally represents a kind of down payment toward the larger and more ambitious body of work Hancock would like to see, so one of the main things that needs to happen, as far as BYU goes, is for it to be more supportive of its faculty in these kinds of efforts. For them to accomplish a lot more will require an expanded and improved ecosystem of institutions as well, such as journals, conferences, publishers who know Mormon stuff, etc. as well, but a lot of that is likely to develop if BYU folks are encouraged to use their minds on it; that is where these kinds of institutions come from in the first place, from scholars who make it happen, and who have resources to assist.

    Evaluating this work at the early stages will be tricky, since we only have so many institutions as yet to do the quality control. Maybe faculty approaching evaluation should be encouraged to line up separate reviewers for their Mormon Studies work, apart from those reviewing their more conventional work, to supplement the judgment of department chairs and such in this somewhat new area.

  10. Xenophon on February 19, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    #4 Ben H, I agree. Besides, if BYU is “one of our best hopes for sustaining the tradition of liberal education into the future,” as you put it, then it makes sense to question whether or not, and to what degree, BYU is fulfilling that role in the present. I believe that Elder Holland’s stimulating address at the University Conference in 1988, A School in Zion (http://fc.byu.edu/jpages/ee/w_jrh88.htm), was meant to raise the bar, to set our sights much higher, and provide a greater vision of what BYU, and indeed what education, could and should be. Educating Zion requires salt of the earth, city on a hill, light of the world teaching and scholarship. A Zion University, and a University in Zion, would do precisely that which the Prophet Joseph Smith called for: “We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up…” Instead of simply acquiescing to what is popular in the academic mainstream, a Zion University would set the standard, raise an Ensign if you will. In doing so, it would show appreciation and holy envy for the good and true principles gathered elsewhere. The example that you mentioned of your professor who chose to work at BYU demonstrates that, at least in some ways, BYU is accomplishing its mission and reaching for the vision described by Elder Holland in his speech.

  11. Genevieve on February 19, 2014 at 11:55 pm

    There were several times at BYU when I wished that my professors had helped the class navigate through potentially faith-challenging issues.

    Here’s an example: As a 19-year-old, I believed that membership in the church required a strictly literal interpretation of the Adam and Eve story, and it caused me quite a bit of angst. I remember that my history of civilization textbook had a pretty meaty section on prehistoric peoples. After I read the chapter, I looked forward to class that day, wondering how on earth the professor would reconcile the assigned reading with Mormon doctrine. He did not address the issue at all. Later, I felt foolish for expecting a class outside the religion department to help me with my testimony. Looking back, I’m not sure what the professor could have said that would have been both helpful and sufficiently orthodox. But his failure to address what I thought was a significant and pertinent faith challenge gave me the impression that I had to put my faith in a separate compartment from anything that I learned about prehistory.

  12. jader3rd on February 20, 2014 at 1:24 am

    “Fourth, faith and reason are just plain tricky to get on the same page.” Really? One thing I’ve always loved about the Gospel is how well faith and reason go together. Sometimes you need a little more faith to keep going, some times some good reasoning will keep you grounded, but by and large they tend to strengthen each other in the Gospel.
    To me it sounds like Hancock as associated something with his gospel identity (conservative talk radio, a certain political bandwagon, something else perhaps) and is finding out that many of his peers don’t. In response he’s trying to bring the gospel back to his world view, when in reality it was never there in the first place.
    11. Genevieve. How is a Professor supposed to be able to address all possible misbeliefs that a student could possibly have? That is a very daunting task you’ve placed before them. Classes at BYU can help you strengthen your testimony in ways you didn’t see coming, but it’s generally through insight/speculation on Christ being in all things.

  13. James Olsen on February 20, 2014 at 6:32 am

    Well stated Ben. I agree that the challenge will get harder the further along we get. One reason is that the scholarly world (or at least some in it) have finally started to recognize and publish on Mormonism. Some of this is friendly (e.g., see Dave’s recent post on Stephen Webb’s book), but even the friendly stuff is at risk of getting important variables wrong. If we allow a critical mass of non-Mormon scholarship to develop a Mormon worldview for us, I think there’s a distinct chance we’ll be unhappy with it or find it lacking, but will have a lot of work to do to then retroactively modify it.

    That said, one of the marks of success of Mormonism as a cultural phenomenon is precisely our presenting something worthy of study and overcoming entrenched anti-bias. I think we’re at or getting to that point. And the development of a Mormon worldview can be immensely benefited by non-Mormon scholars. As you note above, however, peer review is critical, and I think even more critical for non-Mormon scholars bravely pioneering into Mormon Studies. Consequently, they need us to perform that work – but what can we do without a mass of scholars capable of serving as peers?

    I certainly don’t mean to imply (nor does it seem you’re implying) that we don’t already have some great folks working away at this. But this is exactly the sort of thing that requires strong institutional backing if its ever going to be anything other than fledgling. In fact, I think that it would require a lot more than just BYU. BYU’s absence, however, is rather conspicuous, and its current institutional stance functions a bit like dead weight on the project.

  14. Ben Huff on February 20, 2014 at 11:06 am

    Genevieve, thank you for your comment. This is exactly the kind of thing that I would like to see BYU do a better job of addressing. Students are going to encounter these issues, and the more thoughtful and educated they are, the more questions like this they are likely to encounter, so educating them in other ways increases their need to be educated in this way as well. The more successful BYU is in its conventional forms of education, the more acute becomes the need for an intellectually robust education in our religion.

    But as you say, faculty don’t have much to go on in trying to address questions like this. These are questions that require careful thought and study, and when there is scholarship involved that is expanding our knowledge in an area, without being integrated with faith and scripture, it pretty much requires scholarship to do the integration. Nothing less is really going to measure up. So unless a bunch of really smart, well-educated Mormons are doing scholarship on these issues, we are just going to be winging it, or trying not to think about them. And what is more, even if there is a bunch of scholarship out there (which there isn’t right now—not nearly enough), faculty aren’t going to be able to make use of it unless part of what they are paid for is to study this scholarship and engage with it themselves.

    As President (of BYU, then) Holland said, professors have to learn just like students do, including writing papers—we call that scholarship. And their work has to be evaluated. They don’t get grades, but they present their papers either for discussion at conferences and such, where other scholars test and correct them, or for the peer review process that precedes publication. And the work continues to be tested and challenged after publication. Without this sort of process, professors can’t learn properly, and continued learning is essential for a healthy intellectual life, especially because our knowledge as a society grows and develops. Professors are very limited in what they can do for students’ learning, unless they are continuing to learn themselves, through active scholarship.

    jader3rd, I agree that faith and reason naturally go together. But to keep them on the same page requires quite a bit of work. I agree Mormons have huge advantages over other religious groups in this process, in principle, based on our theology and ecclesiology. But in terms of resources and institutions, we are running a very spare operation.

    As for how the liberal/conservative political spectrum connects to this, there is no question that we have competing moral traditions at work. Neither American conservatism nor American progressive-liberalism is grounded in Mormonism, so we must recognize both of them as somewhat alien, more or less certain to conflict with Mormonism in at least some ways and perhaps rather fundamentally. But Hancock is arguing that many Mormon intellectuals, including BYU faculty, are disproportionately influenced by the liberal-progressive tradition. If you criticize Hancock for being overly influenced by the conservative tradition, fine, but that is no kind of reason to discount his criticism. If you say Hancock is assimilating with national polarities, you have to admit that there are probably a lot of others doing so as well, if in a different way.

    Setting particular individuals aside for now, the fact is that Mormon intellectual life is far too strongly influenced by national political categories and fashions. Why is this? Because we have not done enough to unfold the moral and intellectual riches of our own, distinctive inheritance. We are blown about far too much by the winds of political opinion in Western society generally. We need to build more firmly on the foundation we’ve been given by God.

    James, I totally agree with you on #13. Thanks. Of course, I think some of the reason we have moved from being beneath notice in many people’s eyes, to being worthy of study, is that it has become obvious we are not some insignificant bunch of weirdos; we have the potential to influence national life in significant ways. So even those who are basically hostile or contemptuous have to get serious and admit someone needs to study us. But whether they are more sympathetic or more skeptical, having more non-Mormons and non-BYU folks in the picture is likely to be a big help in building a balanced, well-rounded scholarly conversation if and as Mormons and BYU start stepping up to the plate more.

  15. mtnmarty on February 20, 2014 at 11:55 am

    Ben,

    Isn’t part of mormonism the idea that there aren’t mormon answers there are only correct answers and incorrect answers? Specialization, at least in fields searching for truth, are mormon to the extent they reach truth and not mormon to the extent that they don’t. What does Mormon studies add?

    In the social sciences and humanities are you referring to Mormon as “the cultural and religious group that have historically been mormon” as what mormonism is, or or you thinking of Mormonism as the order of God, which is related to but not identical with, the current theology of the first?

    Hancock’s concern is that Mormonism of type 1 is moving away from Mormonism of type 2, so are you advocating type 1 or type 2 mormonism for mormon studies?

    If it is type 1, then you haven’t solved Ralph’s issue because Joanna Brooks is as type 1 as they come. Type 1 mormons include those who leave the church or excommunicated. Do Denver Snuffer and Joanna brooks have enough in common to use as a foundation?

    If, on other hand, you are thinking of type 2 mormonism, what methodology is proposed that can reduce the jumble of morals that all scripture, doctrine and individual conscience produces. Aren’t you just back to cataloging type 1 mormonism?

    I know I keep trying to beat you with the Hancock stick, but it doesn’t seem like you recognize that Hancock is a mormon partisan, he promotes a particular view of mormonism. Why use his argument for more mormonism at BYU to bolster your own argument for more mormon scholarship unless you want to own his political, moral and religious agenda?

    Where does mormon feminism fit into mormon studies for example? There seems to be little concensus on what it is, whether its a good thing or where it is going. Wouldn’t the study of Mormon feminism fall back on the study of feminism in general and then Mormonism as a subspecies of it, rather than deriving a proper Mormon feminism from the first principles of Mormonism.

    I just have a hard time understanding what non-specialized mormon scholarship is or might be.

  16. European Saint on February 20, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Mtnmarty (15): “Hancock is a mormon partisan, he promotes a particular view of mormonism.” The general authorities, collectively, also promote a particular view of Mormonism (see General Conference, October 2013). How would you say Hancock’s “political, moral and religious agenda” differs from theirs? And a related question: Would you also say that T&S authors like Decoo, Kaimi, and others are “Mormon partisans”? Do they not also “promote a particular view of Mormonism?’

  17. Ben Huff on February 20, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    mtnmarty, there is a reason we have disciplines, or specialties: there is too much to know, and too many valuable techniques for building knowledge, for one person to master it all. But the ways we divide up knowledge and scholarship can also blind us as well as empowering us. Any serious Mormon inquiry is going to involve some kind of specialization, intentional or unintentional. But all the most interesting and important questions go well beyond what any specialized inquiry can settle. Therefore, we have to have some way of stepping back and asking these questions in a comprehensive manner, incorporating the results of narrower inquiries but going beyond them. I certainly don’t advocate doing away with specialities, and I doubt Hancock does, either. However, I think that people need to stop limiting themselves to only working within their specialties. They need to be ready to take what they learn there and bring it to the table with other people who have learned from their own specialties, and work together to build something larger.

  18. Genevieve on February 20, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    jader3rd:

    “How is a Professor supposed to be able to address all possible misbeliefs that a student could possibly have? That is a very daunting task you’ve placed before them.”

    No, I wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to address every possible misbelief or faith challenge. But how about a few of the big ones at least, when they come up in the coursework? I’d say that the tension between the creation story in Genesis and the evidence for prehistoric peoples is a pretty big deal for many Mormons.

    Anyway, I agree with you in large measure. I don’t mean to single out the particular professor I referred to in the comment as some sort of slacker. Yes, it would have been daunting, and maybe dangerous if he was perceived as straying from orthodoxy, for him to try to help us see our way through the possibilities of reconciling our faith with the material we were learning. I agree with Ben H. that there needs to be more support for the kind of scholarship that would foster meaningful interactions of faith (specifically Mormon faith)and reason.

    I guess what I really wanted was for BYU to be more of a community of people grappling with the hard questions than it was.

  19. mtnmarty on February 20, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    BenHuff: “They need to be ready to take what they learn there and bring it to the table with other people who have learned from their own specialties, and work together to build something larger.”

    Well said.

    It would be nice if some universities took that on in a moral, political and religious way and others in a historical, psychological and aesthetic way and others in yet different ways and then by their fruits we could know them.

  20. morether on February 20, 2014 at 9:59 pm

    Ben Huff: “…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.”

    I completely agree with the second part of the this statement. BYU should be a place where scholarship on and expressive of Mormonism is valued and rewarded. However, expecting this of all faculty seems unreasonable. It assumes that the only or best expression of the fusion faith and reason is for scholars to leave their fields and disciplines to pursue questions which they many be neither qualified nor interested. And why exempt the natural scientists from the expectation?

  21. Ben on February 20, 2014 at 10:43 pm

    BYU really should be a place where hard questionslike those Genevieve brings up) can be discussed within a context of faith. “How do you, as a Mormon professor in field X, deal with this?” Instead, it seems many feel policy-bound to not bring up anything vaguely uncomfortable or suggest answers that haven’t been heard over the pulpit.

  22. Grant on February 21, 2014 at 7:52 pm

    I very much agree with your last comment, Ben. Thanks.

    For anyone wishing a fuller explanation of Prof. Hancock’s thinking, including more explicit denunciations of what really bothers him at BYU and elsewhere, you can consult the article he published yesterday at Meridian. http://www.ldsmag.com/article/1/13976

  23. European Saint on February 21, 2014 at 8:06 pm

    Thank you for posting the link, Grant.
    “Secular “rationalism” appears superficially to be rational, because it focuses on means and suppresses the question of ends or purposes. If you assume thoughtlessly that the individual must be ever further liberated – that is, severed — from family, community and tradition, then one “rational” means to this end is obviously to redefine away the family and to limit the freedom of religious institutions to resist this redefinition. But if you reason more deeply and question this “progress” towards ever more isolated, disoriented and thus weaker “individuals,” then your reasoning must be open to insights from religious and other traditions. The most rigorous reasoning sees beyond simplistic “rationalism” to the sources of goodness that reason cannot itself fabricate.”
    Brilliant.

  24. Ben S. on February 22, 2014 at 9:58 am

    A follow-up to my earlier comment.

    There may be another factor in discouraging discussion of difficult/controversial issues. I have heard many times (I did teach at BYU for a few summers, and have friends in several departments) that parents are a large problem. That is, they’re usually the ones making donations and paying tuition. There is, apparently, a large number of parental complaints and economic threats when someone’s child is taught something of a religious nature that differs from what the parents expect/believe. This cause some form of outrage for violating tradition/”not being faithful” etc. Parents feel their kids are being taught things incompatible with Mormonism as they have received/understood it, and they complain.

    If BYU is a business that responds to market forces, I’d say the primary customers exerting those forces are the COB, then parents, and students in third place.

  25. Mtnmarty on February 22, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    Grant, thanks for the link. Basically Ralph wants a religious form of reason for BYU. The commenters all think this is wonderful and it sounds that way in general terms because everyone assumes that the tradition and reason he is talking about coincide with their own.

    But as soon as you get to particulars all heck breaks loose because no one can agree on what tradition and reason we are talking about. Wouldn’t tradition at BYU mean the tradition of Brigham Young with polygamy, Adam-God and blacks not having the Priesthood?

    Or do we mean Scholasticism or Abraham or something else? Nothing is as individualistic as a Mormon’s view of tradition and religious reason.

    The problem that we traditionalists have not been up to is explaining why tradition should be respected when it includes so many horrible things. Tradition produced values that lead us to conclude the past was a horrible place.

  26. Dave on February 22, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    Relevant to this discussion is an FPR post that went up after this posted. Here is a relevant excerpt:

    [T]he standards of orthodoxy [apparently used to bar BYU hiring some otherwise qualified LDS religion scholars] that are used are entirely opaque. Some LDS scholars of religion at BYU and CES are variously warned against evolution, scholarly biblical studies at even the most basic level (including not believing in a literal universal flood), publication in certain venues, publication on certain topics, writing about books published by certain publishers, situating religious figures in their historical time period, and teaching certain classes at other academic institutions.

  27. Ben H on February 24, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    Interesting FPR post, Dave. I agree it is sad to see people disqualified from employment at BYU based on murky criteria. That said, in a system that grants tenure/continuing status, hiring is unavoidably a high-stakes game. And if there were some official list of criteria for qualification, it would either look ridiculously pharisaical, or invite manipulative/cynical posturing, or both. Perhaps more importantly, no written list can offer comprehensive guidance in such a complex business.

    Rather than a list, I suggest we need a stronger culture of intellectual faith, a self-ordering community of peers and role models and mentors and constructive criticism that can help people avoid serious errors in thought or action. We’re not there yet, but we’re working on it.

  28. Clark on February 25, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    Odd that they are still pushing that Dave, given that the FARMS types (and I assume most of the current Maxwell Institute crowd) seem pretty embracing of evolution and a limited flood. Given how their limited geography mesoAmerican model of the Book of Mormon is now ubiquitous even among most of the CES crowd you’d think the other similar approaches would also be embraced.

  29. Dave on February 25, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    It is odd, Clark, which is what makes the entire discussion of LDS religious scholarship at BYU so problematic. What some think of as scholarship in this field looks to others like doing the work of the adversary. What some might think of as scholarship that furthers the work of the Church looks like shoddy scholarship,at best, to others.

    But I will agree with Ben H that this dynamic is not helping BYU produce much good scholarship in the field of Mormon Studies (or whatever you call it) that creates new knowledge in the field or just gives good discussion or analysis of LDS topics and issues to the general membership of the Church. The title of the post, after all, is “Challenges of Scholarship on Mormonism at BYU,” and there certainly are challenges.

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