In reading through Phil Barlow’s ground breaking work on Mormons and the Bible, I came across this soundbite from page xvii of the introduction:
If God works through imperfect human beings, one danger among others is that human, culturally defined allegiances and perceptions will displace God’s work. Whether or not one is a believer, the good faith attempt to critically examine human tendencies ought not induce defensiveness. The historical task can and should be essentially a constructive work for humanity, possibly having as one of his positive goals the distinguishing of moral, spiritual, and intellectual wheat from chaff.
I think this paragraph pregnant with meaning (to borrow from John Taylor’s description of the Constitution of the Council of Fifty), but for now, a few things stuck out to me. First, the words “the good faith attempt” stuck out to me. Next, on that same sentence, “Whether or not one is a believer”. I took this to refer to the scholar making the “good faith attempt”. Last semester I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a class in Mormonism at BYU (In the History department), along with a number of my cobloggers here. The overwhealming response to the “good faith” efforts of the various scholars we engaged was positive, which was encouraging. Once in a while there was a fairly negative reponse to a non-LDS scholar, even one response in particular that described one such effort as, in effect, the Devil’s sophistry.
In my interactions with scholars, ecclesiastical officials, rank and file Mormons and not-so rank and file Mormons, I get the sense that there is still a real defensiveness toward any attempt at a critical examination of the humanity of a religious tradition on the part of the rank and file and the ecclesiastical. I have found, however, that once these groups have a chance to interact on a more personal level with the scholar, and the “good faith” nature of the inquiry is made more clear, the defensiveness diminishes and there is greater opportunity for learning and mutual interaction.
As a believing Latter-day Saint, I value this interaction. The academic world may rage, and it may not matter in that sphere whether or not academic treatments of Mormonism are well received by the rank and file, but it matters to this Latter-day Saint, who is striving to make a “good faith attempt” to understand his religious tradition. Thank you, Dr. Barlow, for this bit of wisdom.