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The Awkwardness of Mormonism and its Place in Religious Studies

March 19, 2015

by Dr. Brian Birch
Remarks from an informal discussion on Religious Studies and Mormon Studies at the University of Utah on September 8, 2009, originally published on September 15, 2009 in The Juvenile Instructor
Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be here and to be among good friends and colleagues. Before I begin, I would like to thank Muriel Schmid and the other members of the Research Interest Group for having us here today. My job, as I understand it, is to talk about the relation between religious studies [hereafter RS] and Mormon studies [hereafter MS], particularly the place of MS in the liberal arts curriculum.
As Muriel indicated, I graduated from the University of Utah with both my BA and MA in philosophy. While I was studying here, I was one of many students who passed through the institution who would have pursued religious studies as a major or minor were it available; so to watch this program move forward is a very welcome development and I support the efforts of those involved in this project..
When I graduated in 1992 I couldn’t have imagined returning in this capacity and talking about this issue. Despite my background, I had little interest in MS as I pursued my doctoral studies at Claremont Graduate University. I can’t pinpoint exactly why this was so (perhaps it was some combination of naïveté and ambivalence). Whatever the case, it wasn’t until I returned from Claremont and began teaching at Utah Valley that I began to see the need for, and potential benefits from, the presence of Mormon studies at state universities in the Utah system.
In 2000, under the leadership of my late colleague Eugene England, then UVSC received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to explore how to develop Mormon studies in a state institution of higher learning. The grant supported a year-long seminar for UVSC faculty and administrators and included some of finest scholars in the academic study of Mormonism. Throughout the seminar, there were active debates over what the academic study of Mormonism could hope to accomplish for our students, for the surrounding community, and for the academic community more broadly.
One on the one hand, some argued that the academic study of Mormonism should be guided primarily by concerns in cultural studies, an important objective of which is to identify and ultimately overcome injustice. Eugene England was quoted widely during this time as saying that Mormon studies should both “celebrate” Mormon cultural achievements and also to scrutinize and “criticize” beliefs and practices that were viewed as detrimental to social justice. This view was driven by Gene’s passion for equality and his unyielding hope for cultural transformation.
Others, such as myself, argued that this approach faced both methodological and practical difficulties. The methodological issues are perhaps best kept for another discussion, but the practical difficulties were obvious to me. Which features of Mormonism were to be celebrated? Which were to be critiqued? Who decided? This is certainly not to say that cultural studies could not be a part of a Mormon studies program. In fact, UVU offers a class called “Mormon Cultural Studies” in which issues of race, gender, class, etc., are explored, examined, dissected and the like. What I tried to argue was that this should not be the defining objective of a program around which other educational values revolved.
This second vision for Mormon studies program is to create a space wherein diverse methodologies and perspectives were allowed voice. This imagined space would protect, facilitate, and cultivate ideological diversity, which is itself a core educational value, and perhaps one more central than those of cultural studies. Critics, apologists, dispassionate scholars, and interested observers could be welcomed and supported. The criterion for inclusion and exclusion would be the extent to which a perspective contributed to a rich and stimulating academic discussion.
Tragically, Eugene England became ill and passed away before this discussion had fully developed and I regret not being able to work with him to develop the program in way that integrated both of our perspectives.
The second part of my remarks involves a few observations and comments for further deliberation and discussion. I will begin by stating that, in my judgment, the religious studies community has not quite known how to deal with the rapid rise and influence of Mormonism. Some of this is due to the obvious prejudices that have existed in the American academy, both from secular scholars and the Christian theological community. This is somewhat expected given the history of religious studies in the United States and its still tangled relationships with divinity school education.
At the same time, Mormonism resists tidy categorization. Is it to be understood as a new religious movement, fourth Abrahamic religion, cult, Christian denomination or part some yet to be determined architectonic? Many of us are familiar with Jan Shipps’ argument that Mormonism is a new religious tradition comparable to Christianity’s relationship with Judaism. And though this has been the “go to” characterization of late, the Latter-day Saints themselves are acting more and more like a Christian denomination. This is a long way from the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, which refused to categorize Mormonism as a religion in order to avoid an invitation.
Mormons themselves have found difficulty in characterizing their tradition for academic audiences. Church educational culture has displayed a manifest reticence toward the academic study of Mormonism. For example, as the largest religiously sponsored university in the nation, Brigham Young University has a large faculty in religious education and has committed substantial resources to the study of Mormon history and to projects in ancient near eastern studies. The newly formed Maxwell Institute for Latter-day Saint Scholarship is an impressive organization that supports numerous influential projects in the study of Mormonism. Yet despite its size and influence, BYU has conscientiously avoided support for religious studies. Very few professors have academic training in religious studies or theology despite having a large department of Church History and Doctrine.
Though the situation is changing, LDS students have traditionally been discouraged from pursuing graduate degrees in religious studies, and have been steered instead toward the perceived safer climes of ancient near eastern studies, biblical studies, or advanced degrees in education (to name a few).
Moreover, the sensibility continues to persist that anything not for Mormonism must be against it. This Manichean worldview, though theologically valuable, has limited explanatory effectiveness beyond the Mormon faithful.
I’ll end with two quotes that amplify the importance of perspective and context. The first comes from Alan Wolfe in his essay “Mormons and Money” (penned for the New Republic); the second from Richard Bushman in his address at Weber State University in 2008. This is Wolfe:
“Secular people may laugh at the idea of Joseph Smith coming across a holy book in western New York or discovering that Adam and Eve had lived in western Missouri, but these revelations are neither more nor less believable than Jesus walking on water or Moses parting the sea. It is, however, true that, in comparison to Christianity and Judaism, Mormonism is a very young religion and, consequently, has not had nearly as much time as its counterparts to develop theological justifications for its miracles.”
Now Bushman:
“all the revealed religions are based on miracles. Christianity has its resurrection, Judaism has the parting of the Red Sea and the visit of God on Mount Sinai, and Islam has Mohammed being carried by Gabriel in the night to Jerusalem for a vision. And those revelations, those miracles, are always the most controversial but the most powerful part of the religion because they represent the moment when God intervenes into the world. And it gives immense momentum to people that think that they are in touch with the divine. But at the same time they are always contested simply because they are so miraculous and fabulous.”
Mormonism represents a very real challenge to some of the traditions and sensibilities in the RS community. It is a vibrant proselytizing religion separated from its founding miracles by a just a handful of generations. It thus presents, in my mind at least, a challenge to RS to recalibrate the ways it approaches new religious traditions. This “awkwardness” of Mormonism, however, is also an opportunity, and one that a state institution like the University of Utah can take up in a very positive and constructive way.
Published with the author’s permission.