Walking through the campus of Jesus College is akin to visiting a middle age monastery. Indeed, it was originally conceived in 1496 as a nunnery, though its monastic buildings had been around for two centuries previous. While in the middle of Cambridge’s City Centre, its high and thick stonewalls make it a world by itself. Isolated and protected from the busy city streets, all is quiet and at ease. The lawn is trimmed, the shrubbery manicured. The grounds are in pristine shape. The very environment announces the college’s importance and tradition, demanding respect. It promises that nonconformity announces loud deviance. The entrance to the chapel, finished in 1245, is under construction; no bother, the most popular place is the Quincentenary Library, finished in 1996. The overall effect of the area is imposing, impressive.
I go to meet one of my advisers. He’s an elderly gentleman, a renowned scholar with a long list of the highest academic achievements. His academic rooms—that’s correct, rooms—are floor to ceiling books, elegant, and spacious. It even has a large fireplace. His computer screen shows that our discussion is interrupting the booking of a tee time at a local golf club. I take a seat on an antique chair and we discuss my current paper project. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American democratic tradition, the origins of pragmatism, the remnants of federalism, the problems and evasiveness of moral absolutes. He is welcoming to my opinions, forthright in his critiques, incisive in his suggestions. We construct a plan for my next two weeks of study and schedule our next meeting. While I stand up to put on my jacket, he asks a question. “From looking at your background, would I be correct in assuming that you are Mormon?”
I remove my jacket. I sit down. I squirm. I reply in the affirmative. He asks how the Joseph Smith Papers Project, my previous employer, manages to handle sensitive academic issues while being overseen by the Church’s authorities. He asks how historians in the Church, who are aware of academic theory and critical thinking, cope with the pressure put on them by their leaders, who believe in the Church’s doctrines. He asks how a Mormon scholar can so much as annotate the Book of Mormon’s text without forthrightly dealing with the obvious difficulties its tedious, strained, and often borrowed prose presents to the perceptive reader. He asks how critical thinking scholars get along with their fellow members who actually subscribe to Mormonism’s tenets. He is unquestionably kind and pure in his intent, but obviously curious as to what my response would be.
I adjust in my seat. I search for an answer. I dodge the implied question, instead speaking of the tension between academic Mormons and the Church’s hierarchy. I quickly recount the ordeal of Leonard Arrington’s “Camelot,” of retrenchment, of today’s tenuous hope. I emphasize practicing members who do well in academia. I mention the sometimes isolation and risk that accompanies the Mormon scholar. I note the tension between the academically educated and the faithful masses. I continue his bifurcation of thinkers and believers.
As I leave his office, I walk down the old staircase and into the orderly court, overlook its trim lawn, and feel encompassed by its antiquated battlements. I feel alone. I consider if conformity to an orderly and prestigious campus comes at a cost. I wonder why it is I am quick to appease. I wonder why I yearn for acceptance. I walk past the Jesus College Chapel, deserted. I read that there is a choral service later that day, though at the moment I could only imagine echoes.
I exit the imposing gatehouse, walk down its antiquated walled passage, mount my bike, and ride home.