Mormonism and Comparative Studies

By February 19, 2009

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?

Article filed under Comparative Mormon Studies


  1. I think the big danger in parallel-mania is de-contextualizing parallels. This is especially the case for texts or figures that your audience probably isn’t familiar with and isn’t going to look up. Emerson is a fairly read figure so there’s a bit of a danger there but not a huge one. (Or maybe I’m exaggerating peoples familiarity with him) But both Nibley and Quinn take far more esoteric sources, de-contextualize them and then present them as parallels.

    I’m fine with presenting the parallels, but I think one has a duty to ones audience to note the differences as well as the similarities.

    Comment by Clark — February 19, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

  2. Good points, Ben. I think comparative approaches too often focus on similarities. As Clark mentioned, it’s important to note differences as well as similarities. In fact, I think comparative analysis, viewed in context, readily reveals differences and consequently often helps clarify particular points of view.

    Comment by Jordan W. — February 19, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

  3. I find the dude x::dude y studies the riskiest. i am more interested in teasing out the variety of influences and interconnections culturally.
    Jonathan Z. Smith has written interesting material on this topic, though he is controversial.

    Comment by smb — February 19, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

  4. Excellent post, Ben! As a serious proponent of early nineteenth-century Mormon parallels, I can still agree with your concerns whole-heartedly. One only need look at some of the more callow efforts to connect Ethan Smith and Joseph Smith as if they were joined at the hip (too often without even considering the greater body of Ethan’s works, or Joseph’s irrepressible unconventionality). There are plenty of stunningly shared, broad cultural bases to admire without needing to construct facile, forced connections.

    At the 2005 Library of Congress seminar that you mention, I sense (in the published text) a slight tension between those who want to soar expansively into a universal world of Joseph Smith application beyond his local origins, and those who warn us to remember his tangible roots carefully (if with just a hint of less self-congratulation). In my own work, I search for evidence that Joseph Smith’s immediate world equipped him for everything he did, and that he could do it all as a natural man. In the Library of Congress talks, on the other hand, I sense that Richard Bushman is weary of people like me, and wants to move on, move on.

    “Bushman wants to tap the promise of [broader, transnational] comparative history,” responded Grant Underwood, “and I agree, but religious devotees are sometimes skittish about comparative analysis because it seems to rob their particular religion of its uniqueness. They assume that uniqueness is prime evidence of their faith’s divine origin. Such thinking, however, confuses a religion’s character with its source. Similarity and difference are descriptive categories; they say nothing necessarily about origin.” (“Attempting to Situate Joseph Smith,” in Brigham Young University Studies 44 [2005; “Special Issue?The Worlds of Joseph Smith”], 47)

    In other words, we need to walk a careful and balanced line, whatever direction we take. Dr. Underwood went on to caution against both the oversimplification and the mis-application of parallels (p. 48), against which practices I, too, have aspired to warn readers throughout my Mormon Parallels: A Bibliographic Source. For the believer, Joseph Smith rose above his natural abilities in recognizing and interpreting all the necessary components of Mormonism through divine direction. For the skeptic, anything which Joseph liked or reasoned, became part of Mormonism. The believer asks how Joseph Smith could have found all the parts on his own. The skeptic asks why Joseph did not find other parts which might have been just as good. It is a matter of faith.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — February 20, 2009 @ 1:44 am

  5. Provocative post Ben,

    I think that pointing out similarities and parallels between different historical figures has its place in historical research. Such comparative perspectives serve to stimulate research and deep thought. The problem is that these parallels mean nothing unless we can interrogate the reasons why they exist. Thus, Emerson’s and Smith’s similarities are not nearly as important as the reasons why they might have been similar. Historians can only discover these reasons through deep contextual research which actually means more work than one sided analysis.

    Comment by Joel — February 20, 2009 @ 8:27 am

  6. I did a post on some of my thoughts regarding “parallel-o-mania” a while back that’s relevant:

    I find the dude x::dude y studies the riskiest

    I’d be interested to hear why this is the case. It seems that some fields of comparative studies have migrated in this direction to combat the criticism of past comparative enterprises that attempted to compare two large traditions. The latter, it is claimed, allowed such a broad range of comparisons that the process of comparison was more determined by the author rather than the things being compared. In other words this kind of comparative endeavor represented more the pragmatic use of two diverse traditions to suit the particular needs of the author; rather than a sincere attempt to “compare”. Not that a two-person study is removed from this critique of course, but at least it mitigates some of it.

    Additionally, some have suggested a three-person comparison; thereby (potentially) relieving the tendency to make two individuals seem like polar opposites.

    Comment by SmallAxe — February 20, 2009 @ 9:33 am

  7. I just have a second to drop a bibliographic reference that may help.

    Kimberly Patton and Benjamin C. Ray, eds., A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age (UC Press, 2000).

    The title is a play on JZ Smith’s classic article on comparison and the book addresses many of the hot-button issues of the comparative enterprise.

    ETA: The Smith article is called “In Comparison a Magic Dwells” and can be found in Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University of Chicago Press, 1982)

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 20, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

  8. Thanks to all who have shared their thoughts; all great points and I have learned a lot.

    I am away at a conference in Florida (hence my absence from the discussion), but I hope to add some more of my thoughts soon.

    Comment by Ben — February 20, 2009 @ 6:00 pm


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