This is Part 2 of our two-part Scholarly Inquiry with Samuel Brown. For Part 1, see here.
4. You address some of this in First Principles, but who is the intended audience of for your devotional work, and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
That’s the hard question. I mostly wanted my non-academic friends to have an accessible summary of my sense of how the Gospel might work. I felt sorry for the good people who felt stymied by the academic tone of In Heaven. I also felt like I was being a tiny bit cowardly by not taking a personal stand (academic writing, which I love, is always a little cowardly in my view, so easy to hide so much in the conventions of disciplined scholarship). My secret agenda (there is always a secret agenda in writing; you don’t have to admire Leo Strauss to acknowledge that) in First Principles was to begin to advocate for a relational theology of Mormonism, one that was true to Mormonism’s roots and promise, thereby gently de-Protestantizing the theologies available to contemporary Mormons.
I also wanted to write something that had a chance at improving our prospects for harmony as a people. I wanted it to be useful to Mormons on both sides of the current primary axis of division, “conservative” vs. “liberal.” The most gratifying aspect of the reception of First Principles has been the feedback from readers all across the divide: tender notes from liberals struggling to (re)imagine their place within the Mormon fold, and kind regard from people who strongly identify themselves as conservatives/traditionalists.
5. How would you characterize the relationship is between your scholarly and devotional work?
I work very hard to keep them separate. I think scholarly and devotional writing work best when they are allowed to flourish independently. I write academic and devotional material separately because I think that merging scholarship and devotion in the same writing risks infidelity to both in the ultimate product. (In statistics, you want observations to be independent to make them maximally informative; in my mind I’m doing the same sort of thing with this scholarship vs.devotion divide in my writing; I’m allowing them to be informative by token of their independence from each other.)
As I think about it, though, I should acknowledge two senses of devotional writing here. One is very general, a kind of aesthetic and soulful celebration of being and consciousness (I put John Durham Peters’ fabulous new book, The Marvelous Clouds, in that category). This kind of devotion is, to a limited extent, present in my academic writing. I love being alive, relish feeling the hum of consciousness in myself and others, and I try to celebrate and be true to those observations in my academic writing. (Admittedly, you can’t really bask in the glory of human consciousness when writing up the results of regression models; this kind of devotion mostly appears in my non-quantitative writing.) The other style of devotion is more specifically about strengthening a specific community, helping people internal to that community to increase their sense of attachment to it. The latter is what I strive to bracket while I’m doing academic work.
6. What is your perception of the work of other scholars operating in a similar devotional mode (e.g. Adam Miller, Terryl and Fiona Givens, etc.) How does what you are doing compare?
I should note that you’re asking me to comment on the writing of friends whom I admire a great deal. As we would say in biomedicine, I have a competing interest. With that disclaimer, I do have some thoughts.
Adam’s a Continental philosopher; the Givenses are Romantics and literature scholars. All three write beautifully and with great feeling, drawing on their respective training. Their writing has done a vast amount of good in our faith community.
And me? I do science mostly, after an undergraduate major in theoretical linguistics, and write like a thesaurus dropped into a blender. I feel like my writing is more idiosyncratic and episodic as a result of my intellectual waywardness, but I think that gives me a freedom in content and approach that’s not available to other people. I’m able to inhabit multiple worlds, I hope productively, as a consequence. Too much of the writing about “science” and “religion” is by people who know at most one of them well. Thinking and writing inside both domains has helped me to understand better what Charles Taylor calls “cross-pressures,” both on myself and on potential readers, this sense of conflicted loyalties, of the intellectual draw of physicalism on the one hand and the spiritual nostalgia for a lost religious world on the other.
I’m slowly whittling away at a proposal for a book on what I’m calling “dread” that I hope will draw on the best of religion and science while swatting a bit at late-modern secularity. I hope that my further writing within both mythic poles of our “idea world” (what Taylor calls our “social imaginary”) will bring special insights to bear on the problems and conflicts that create these cross-pressures.
7. How does your ongoing work on Book of Mormon ‘translation’ fit into all this?
I’ve been interested in language my whole life, with an intense few years studying it in college. It’s what we swim in, the medium we can drown in, the fabric of my awareness. It’s also how we exist outside our own skulls, both in time and space. I feel myself unable to escape language as a topic. The first seeds of my current translation project are contained in chapter 5 of In Heaven, where I think about the nature of seerhood in early Mormonism. Spending so much time with the texts and contexts of early Mormonism, it was hard not to wonder about the nature of language and the centrality of what Smith called “translation.” So now I’m extending those first forays into a fuller treatment of the metaphysics of translation (both linguistic and otherwise) that comes at the questions in a way that’s orthogonal to the older treatments of these questions.
The timing for the translation project feels propitious. The field is wide open for people who want to consider early Mormonism’s sacred texts separate from the service they have done for the combatants in the great food fights of late modernism (these fights are often described as “apologetic” and “anti-Mormon” or “polemical”). Early Mormon translation provides a wonderful vista on what’s at stake in contemporary life and culture as well as a compelling question for historical analysis. While I’m admittedly allergic to “critical theory,” the translation book will more deeply and explicitly argue with philosophers and theologians than In Heaven did. This project is allowing me to think harder than I have for years, and I’m loving it. I look forward to my tiny pockets of time on Sunday to hammer away at the granite in search of the form lurking within.
8. Do you see yourself continuing to do more devotional work in the future?
I’m not sure. I have a couple of half-written Mormon devotional projects (a collection of essays and a pastoral book about death and grieving), but I think I’ve mostly abandoned them for lack of time and motivation. Devotional writing is easily an order of magnitude harder for me than academic writing. I don’t love to read it and hate to write it, which slows me down considerably. I so strongly prefer academic writing that it’s hard for me to imagine investing all the extra work it takes to write devotionally. For now my writing cycles available for Mormon topics are fully occupied by the translation project.
If you’re willing to think more in terms of that first sense of devotional writing above, though, I think I will continue to write in that space. My Through the Valley of Shadows: Living Wills, Intensive Care, and Making Medicine Human is coming out in spring 2016. I’m hoping that book will spark substantial discussion about how we live our lives and how we confront the possibility that a given life is near its end. I’m working on a companion bioethics textbook (current name: Cases in Medical Decision Making: Ethical Problems during Life-Threatening Illness) and have my eye on a book-length treatment currently code-named Modeling God(s) that will draw extensively and explicitly on my use of statistical models and my thinking about the nature of religion and cognition. I think of them as devotional in that sense of celebrating life and consciousness, even though they aren’t Mormon per se.
Please join us in thanking Sam for his thoughtful replies!