Jesus College, and Ashamed Faith

By January 23, 2011

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.

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues Reflective Posts


Comments

  1. I wonder why it is I am quick to appease. I wonder why I yearn for acceptance.

    Indeed. These are things I struggled with too. I suspect part of it was that I felt if my professors, the gatekeepers to my future career, were drawing an us/them distinction, I feared for my future if they thought of me as the “us” instead of the “them.”

    Not an easy thing to deal with.

    Comment by Ben S — January 23, 2011 @ 9:08 am

  2. Er, switch those. “I feared for my future if they thought of me as the “them” instead of the “us.”

    Comment by Ben S — January 23, 2011 @ 9:58 am

  3. I think you answered the questions perfectly. I do not think he expected (or God expected) a bearing of testimony, but rather an authentic expression of some of your feelings at this point of life–which you provided.

    I think balancing faith and inquiry is not easy for anyone, no matter the faith tradition. When I am asked similar questions, I explain that I try to keep an open mind (and heart) as I study things, without too many preconceptions, and interpret my religion to embrace all truth no matter where found. And then I usually ask the inquirer how he or she addresses the tensions among faith, reason and inquiry in his or her own life. Those discussions have been among the most enriching I have ever had in my life, and I have found that my own struggles and reconciliations are not so different from those who come from different faith and nonfaith backgrounds. I am enriched even by discussions with those who do not believe in God and their search for meaning and fulfillment in life, which I have found not to differ significantly from mine or other believers’.

    Comment by DavidH — January 23, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

  4. great post.

    Comment by g.wesley — January 23, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

  5. This was really great, Ben. Thanks.

    Comment by WVS — January 23, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

  6. Aw, Ben, this is great and hits so close to home.

    Comment by Ronan — January 23, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

  7. I appreciate you sharing this, Ben.

    Comment by aquinas — January 23, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

  8. what do you think made you feel ashamed? Those questions seemed very well thought out, and not intended to molest your testimony or your beliefs.

    Comment by Dan — January 23, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

  9. Thanks for this, Ben. I think you handled the situation admirably.

    I wonder how common this is. As I mentioned in private, I’ve yet to encounter any such open and direct hostility or challenge to my chosen faith from my professors (though I have had conversations like this with more than one fellow grad student curious about such issues). But I am obviously aware, based on your experience and that of others I know, that this does happen.

    Comment by Christopher — January 23, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

  10. Thanks, all. This was just as much an experiment in personal essay—a genre which I have often failed—as it was an expression of these thoughts that have been bouncing around my head this last week since the experience.

    David: I agree that a testimony as such would be far from appropriate in such circumstances. In fact, I still have no idea what the most appropriate response would be. The part of my handling of the situation that made me most uncomfortable, though, was my willingness to separate myself from the “believing” body of Saints in order to accommodate with the “critical thinking” body of academia. Such a dichotomy goes against what I deeply believe about faith and scholarship.

    Dan: I agree that the questions were well thought-out and important ones. Indeed, the professor is beyond congenial and is really a delight to work with. However, the presumptions that he was bringing to the conversation implied that there was a sharp contrast between individuals with academic rigor and those who subscribed to mainstream LDS doctrines and beliefs. Hence my distinctions between thinkers and believers.

    Chris: indeed, even through my many experiences with different scholars at different institutions, there are a myriad of opinions on issues like this that result in many different experiences. As we’ve discussed in private, the different outlooks between our two advisers—both of whom are non-LDS—demonstrate how academia is not a monolith.

    I have a sense that the old-school approach that places a wall between scholarly thinking and faithful belief is greatly diminishing in the academy. The way Richard Bushman framed these types of responses in his On the Road with Joseph Smith make them seem more the anomaly than the typical.

    Comment by Ben — January 23, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

  11. Ben,

    However, the presumptions that he was bringing to the conversation implied that there was a sharp contrast between individuals with academic rigor and those who subscribed to mainstream LDS doctrines and beliefs.

    Could it be that that’s the environment he is used to working in, as a scholar in Jesus College?

    Comment by Dan — January 23, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

  12. Hey! Thank you for this. I think it’s clear that, if any former or current author at JI should comment on a personal essay, it’s me (the personal essay person, right?).

    I don’t really have anything to add except “I really understand.” And to offer this tidbit:

    I’m in Dr. Peter Berger’s office (Side note to Matt B: PETER BERGER?!). It’s similar to the “rooms” you describe above, complete with fireplace. He says, “So, you are Mormon?” I say, “Yes?” He says, “…So…you don’t REALLY believe in all of that, right?”

    Awwwwwkwarrrrdddd!

    Comment by Heidi — January 23, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

  13. Dan: that is very much the case. Despite its ironic name, Jesus College, like most other colleges here that make up Cambridge, has grown far from its religious base and represents, at least in most cases, the extreme expression of the secular academy. Outside the Faculty of Divinity, religion just isn’t taken seriously by most scholars. It is tolerated, sure, but most often with slight amusement.

    Comment by Ben — January 23, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

  14. Cheers, Ben.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 23, 2011 @ 3:59 pm

  15. Ben, I think you are correct in saying that the wall between “scholarly thinking and faithful belief is diminishing.” Not always, but certainly more often (a lot more often) than our predecessors experienced. Aren’t we lucky?

    I had the great fortune of working with an adviser who, although heterodox, was very much a believing Catholic–and who found my commitment to faith and academia intriguing. Our conversations pushed me to think about things that may not have crossed my mind otherwise, and, consequently, helped me solidify my own sense of self (what it means to be spiritual and academic).

    I have also come to appreciate some of the moments that resemble the one you have described. I remember my adviser introducing me (and noting my Mormonism in her introduction) to a group of female scholars, and I remember the seemingly impossible (at least at the time) questions they asked me. In essence, they asked how an academic woman who has been trained in the field of women’s history can belong to an oppressive patriarchal culture. It was awkward, uncomfortable. They clearly thought I was crazy. And I didn’t know where to begin.

    I am not really sure what I said, but, like you, I did some mumbling and tried to change subjects, while wishing my professor had not mentioned my religious background. Later, I felt, well, almost guilty about my lack of meaningful response. This situation was not, however, without value. It is likely they have all forgotten about the probing questions thy asked a young Mormon grad student–but for me, it fostered months of thought that helped me forge a stronger sense of my dual identity. Perhaps I would still find myself unable to articulate the hows and whys they requested, but my heart and mind are more comfortable with those hows and whys than they would have been otherwise.

    Comment by Rachel — January 23, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

  16. So now that you’ve had some time to think about it, would you respond any differently today? (I’m not criticizing at all, only wondering how much of the awkwardness was because of the questions themselves, and how much because they came at you unexpectedly.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 23, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

  17. Ardis, I think this question applies to several of the comments, as well as to Ben’s post, but my response would be yes, yes, and yes. I am sure the awkwardness came from the unexpected nature of the questions as well as the queries themselves, and I know I would respond differently, because I am different now (older, more experienced, more comfortable in my own skin). My answers probably would not satisfy that group of women, but I would be more comfortable in that situation than I was years ago.

    Comment by Rachel — January 23, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

  18. Thanks, Rachel, for sharing your experience and reflections on the issue.

    Ardis: a great question. The unexpected nature was definitely a chief factor in my awkwardness. But, though I would like to have handled it differently, with all my reflecting on it I have yet to come up with a better response for that type of circumstance. I hope that, like Rachel, I am able to grow more comfortably into a type of response that would help resonate with what I truly feel.

    Comment by Ben — January 23, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

  19. Ben,

    I really enjoyed reading your personal essay about this experience. This seems to be a situation that many of us come across, whether it’s voiced explicitly or implicitly. I do think that you handled the situation marvelously. I know that the ideology behind his questions is why some Mormon grad students, particularly at renowned institutions, go away from the Church, because of the difficulty of resolving an emphasis on what is logical and can be proved over a knowledge of what is spiritual and can be felt.

    Good work. (And congratulations on having the world’s cutest newborn).

    Comment by Ardis S. — January 23, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

  20. This is excellent and highlights some of my feelings of insecurity (though I’m not imputing such to you) within academia. Ardis S., I think you have captured why I have struggled to bring these topics up with people and have found it difficult to respond adequately when they have been discussed.

    Comment by Aaron R. — January 24, 2011 @ 9:19 am

  21. I wonder whether this could be a fruitful use for a symposium, one where people think through how to communicate in a non-proselytizing way about the importance of their belief. Maybe that Mormon religion grad students conference? I think this is an important part of growing into a scholar, and one that doesn’t get enough consideration. I would think it would be something NOT to publicize, to allow people to speak freely. I could even imagine role-playing and other pedagogically useful but academically marginalized approaches to allow people to think it through.

    I still remember being in college and having a senior person I really liked yell at me for serving a mission–I was so arrogant then that I shrugged it off (and she and I became good friends over the years), but it was emblematic of many other interactions. I have a vaguely embarrassing memory of saying “cogitat ergo est” as my silly (and unsuccessful) way of trying to sound smart about my embrace of God’s existence when I was being grilled in an interview 15 years ago or so.

    And PS, I would not recommend that people think of themselves as wan reflections of Peter denying Christ before dawn when these happen. You are not a bad believer if you suffer from crushing esprit d’escalier after an encounter with a senior academic.

    Comment by smb — January 24, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

  22. Interesting question SMB. I tend to agree that it’s difficult to engage with these issues when there are so many controversial presuppositions. It’s a fine line to bring them up in a friendly non-argumentative way. (i.e. the nature of the Book of Mormon translation)

    Comment by Clark — January 24, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

  23. A couple of things to keep in mind when answering questions like this from your professors (as I’ve had to do):
    1. When it comes to the tenets of your faith, YOU are the expert, not your professor.
    2. Answer questions one at a time.
    3. Generally, you will have the answers your Professor seeks. If not, it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’, then find the answer and provide it to him.
    4. Any information you need ‘right now’ will be filled in by the spirit, if you stay calm.

    For example, his first question was ‘How does the Joseph Smith Papers project manage to handle sensitive academic issues while being overseen by the Church’s Authorities?’ The first misconception this Professor has is that Church Authorities and Academic Research are at odds. You could point out his error by informing him that, at the beginning of the project, Church Authorities authorized the team to research and print any information they found. The team decided to use the same approach to compiling the information that researchers used to compile the life of Abraham Lincoln. Any First-person accounts were given the most ‘weight’. Journals of people who attended the various speeches were given a somewhat lesser ‘weight’, but which was in turn higher than third-hand accounts, etc. The Methodology used to compile the Joseph Smith Papers was very academically-influenced, and both the Research team and the Church’s Authorities were in perfect harmony (at least that’s what the research team says . . .)

    Question 2: 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. Again, your Professor is making a fatal assumption – this one being that anyone that studies the History of the Church must not believe in its tenets. He is also making a second fatal assumption – that anyone in the world of academia must necessarily find religion as nothing but superstition. Both of these conclusions are absolutely wrong. This is where a well-worded question would help: ‘Do you believe that someone who’s studied history cannot believe in the tenets of the Mormon faith?’, or ‘Do you believe that Evolution is strictly at odds with Religious belief?’ Professors who ask these questions of you rarely get down to the ‘meat’ of the discussion without help. These properly-placed questions will help you to understand what the Professor is really asking, allowing you to answer the question properly.

    Finally, as someone who has been asked questions by many of my Professors during the course of study of the two different degrees I hold, I can tell you that not one of them has ever held my beliefs against me. On the contrary, Professors respect a student that can give a literate answer to a direct question.

    Hang in there, Ben. And NEVER be afraid to give an answer to his questions.

    Comment by Jim Bee — January 24, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

  24. Jim,

    I’m going to construct a time machine and take that info back to myself five years ago. College would’ve been VERY different.

    Comment by Gdub — January 24, 2011 @ 5:39 pm

  25. Late to the party again, Ben, but this is an excellent post. Great to get a taste of your environment and interactions. And on my reading your essays are finding some success: anyway they resonate with me. I think you convey a strong sense of your restlessness on all this, and frame it vividly.

    They’re great question that you’re wrestling with. How to speak in such an environment in a way that is not only logically valid but personally fulfilling in a deep and real way? Can we do it? What’s the personal cost if we don’t?

    And I wonder: are we so sure that it’s not a time for a witness of truth? Clearly not after any formal pattern, not in a calculated or evangelizing way, not as an affirmation of tenets or perhaps even of ultimate truths. But perhaps something along the lines of speaking the truth – truth as one sees and understands it – in love.

    What exactly that means is hard to know. I think I only understand that when I don’t speak genuinely, from the truths that are mine, I come away empty.

    Comment by Ryan T — January 26, 2011 @ 1:24 am

  26. I’m late to this but thanks, Ben!

    Comment by Jared T. — January 26, 2011 @ 11:53 am

  27. Thanks, all.

    Comment by Ben — January 26, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

  28. When I was getting my master’s, my adviser seemed to want to try to feel out my beliefs. Once we were having a conversation, he brought up the subject of how conservative Utah was politically. I told him that made me feel rather out of place there since I grew up in a Democrat family. He then said something like “these are the things that shape us and make us want to go into academia. You see, I grew up with a Jewish mother and an atheist father so I grew up confused.” I thought, “I think he’s getting the wrong idea” so I said “I’m interested in religious history because of the mission I served in Dallas.” That was the end of our bonding experience.

    Great post Ben.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 30, 2011 @ 11:25 am


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