I am past deadline on several papers and should be working on homework due in the next hour, but I couldn’t help but put up a post and hopefully stimulate some discussion.
I just got back from the P. A. Christensen Humanities Lecture, this year given by David Paulsen, professor of philosophy here at BYU. Paulsen has recently become contributor to Joseph Smith studies, especially in regards to approaching early Mormon theology. Most significantly, he delivered the paper on Joseph Smith and Philosophy at the 2005 conference on JS at the Library of Congress; more recently, he is the co-editor of the recent Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies. He is currently working on a book-length treatment on Joseph Smith’s conception of God. He received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Michigan (as well as a JD from Chicago), and is one of the foremost LDS scholars in philosophical studies (his many works on, among others, Kierkegaard and James have appeared in journals like the Society of Christian Scholars and Harvard Philosophical Review). Personally, I have taken two classes from him, one on the Philosophy of Religion (focusing on Mormonism) and one on Kierkegaard, and I can attest that he is one of the nicest men I have ever met.
Paulsen delivered a very thought-provoking paper titled “What Does it Mean to be a Christian?: A Comparative View of Soren Kierkegaard and Joseph Smith,” a condensed version of a paper he delivered at MHA a few years back and will be published in the next issue of BYU Studies. As a proponent of more intellectual studies within Mormonism, I welcome this type of engagement with Joseph Smith and contemporary thinkers. Heck, I have even written a paper on the views of Joseph Smith and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Comparative analysis has always been a key component of the study of religion from the days of Goethe (“He who knows one religion knows none”), and has been gaining increasing attention in Mormon studies (SC Taysom’s excellent dissertation is a great example). At the same Library of Congress conference Paulsen spoke at in 2005, both Richard Bushman and Grant Underwood argued for a more comparative approach with Joseph Smith.
However, I’m sure we can all see the dangers with this otherwise helpful approach. We have all heard speakers and lecturers posthumously baptize individuals like Emerson, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Williams, and C. S. Lewis by using their words as a proof-text to validate our own belief. Even more relevant, we have heard/read many arguments that take one or both subjects in a comparative studies out of context in order to establish an intellectual connection that really isn’t there. (There were several moments in today’s lecture where I really felt Paulsen was taking Smith and Kierkegaard out of context in order to sustain a correlated view.) Often, our biggest fear is resorting to “parallelomania,” where we find mythical connections as support for certain arguments and theories.
I believe placing Mormonism within its larger historical context is the most necessary step for Mormon studies, a progression from the somewhat insular “New Mormon History,” and comparative analysis must form some part of this step. But, we must keep in mind the limits and boundaries of such an approach.
After all this rambling, I mostly want to start a discussion and get some ideas: What do you see as the guidelines and boundaries of comparative studies? What are ways to avoid the pitfalls of proof-texting and making imaginative connections? What are some of the best/worst examples you have come across in comparative analyses?