There’s been a lot of enthusiasm for this conference, and every inch of it deserved. Not a cubic zirconium among the presentations, and more than one absolute diamond (Laurie Maffly-Kipp on preparation; Richard Cohen on the Hebrew temple). This was an impressive and a diverse kaleidoscope, and the most interesting thing was the way, one after another, each speaker demonstrated the point Jeanne Halgren Kilde made – that talking about sacred space, at its essence, is talking about the way we experience religion. Space matters because people do things in it.
And the crowd was restlessly aware of this. The symposium was open to the public, and students in shorts and flipflops rubbed shoulders with retirees in suits. Their questions circled not historiography or theory, but rather revealed a constant hunger for explanation of their own experiences. More than one speaker was brought up short by an insistent audience member who wanted not just to get an answer, but to share some sudden insight into their own visit to an LDS temple or a mosque that whatever talk had inspired. And then, around quarter after eight in the evening, at the plenary panel discussion, Richard Bushman started talking about dusting the chairs in the Manhattan temple, and the whole day snapped into focus.
Hearing Bushman talk about anything is a pleasure; he has a deliberate and almost soothing style of delivery, and a talent for definition, but he is also gifted with a particular knack of personalizing scholarship. It is this as much as anything else, I think, that makes him to Mormonism what James McPherson is to the Civil War; a crossover artist whom scholars respect but who also understands the power these things hold in the public imagination, and who conducts himself with the consequent grace that such awareness demands.
Bushman spoke of his own experiences in the Manhattan temple, cleaning and worshiping. He mused about that space’s power to shape the people inside it, and then asked the panel to weigh the relative merits of diffusion. Should we seek to encapsulate the sacred? Or should we pursue the sanctification of the world?
This is not the sort of question scholars generally expect. As Laurie Maffly-Kipp noted, worlds like “better” and “good” are not categories scholars usually think in. We’re phenomenologists; we observe and describe but do not apply. Scholars speak in the language of historiography and evidence; we argue about what theories apply best to our subjects, not to us. (Maffly-Kipp is also, the running joke became, a low-church Protestant. What could she know about temples and ritual? Much geeky hilarity.)
Soon after Bushman asked his question, Richard Cohen, with a ragged hitch in his voice and tears in his eyes, told us about his recent visit to Vilnus, and the Nazi destruction of the Jewish communities there. He quite nearly spat the words. And he apologized for his emotion.
But there was a power in this. One after another, audience members stood and testified. One told Hamid Mavani that his previous description of the faithful praying at a mosque – shoulder pressed to shoulder, foot to foot – had taught her that sacred space should be a place for the construction of community. Another, inspired by Cohen, rose and said that though she was a convert to Mormonism, the rebuilding of the Nauvoo temple (destroyed by mobs in 1848) had bound her to the ancestors of her tradition, the women who sacrificed their china (as, she noted, Michael Fishbane had recounted the Israelites sacrificing their property to build the tabernacle) were those whom the temple was truly built for.
Cohen, and Mavani as well, seemed most energized by this sort of back and forth; Mavani, for istance, eloquently compared Mormonism to Islam, enthusiastically describing the similarities between the garment and ihram clothing to curious Mormons, constantly returning to ideas of cooperation, similarity, and mutual goodwill.
The 2005 Library of Congress symposium on Joseph Smith was the target of some perhaps justified criticism for schizophrenia. As an attendee, I recall the occasionally palpable tension between LDS presenters like Roger Keller – who sought generally to praise rather than analyze Joseph and his works – and non-LDS academics like Douglas Davies, who presented a more critical analysis of Mormon culture and history.
This conference reminded me of that one in some ways; most particularly, the odd dialectic between the academic and the devotional. But here, unlike in Washington, the two seemed to gain some harmony; the amateur and the professional, as Kilde’s formulation gestures toward, learning from each other.
This happens in any conference devoted to studying some arcane specialty. The Western History Association, I am told, features a surfeit of ranchers in large hats; military history conferences attract passionate amateurs who can number the buttons on the coats of uniforms. And Mormon conferences will probably always attract lay Mormons.
And of course, this is how it should be; otherwise academia would wither and die for lack of relevance and an acute case of self-consumption. But I wonder what the divergences between the anxieties of the Library of Congress symposium and the passionate give and take of BYU (and perhaps even the intervening years between) indicate about the particular dynamics that exist between academic and practiced Mormonism.
Was what happened at BYU academic? On the one hand, yes, resoundingly so. These papers were a taste of the possibilities open when we seek to involve Mormonism in larger theoretical and structural discussions. On the other hand, one member of the audience asked a professor at the University of Chicago if the Jews were hiding the materials to rebuild the second temple under a rock somewhere.
Was it devotional? On the one hand, there were as many tears as in an average testimony meeting. On the other, we were told that the Kirtland temple was so arranged as to preserve power hierarchies.
In any case, the edge that sharpened the exchanges between Keller and Davies at the Library of Congress was gone, perhaps because the hardening catalyst of truth claims both religious and academic was absent. Perhaps this indicates that the best way to characterize this conference is as an interfaith dialogue, rather than an academic discussion, and one made that way because of the audience as much as the participants. The goal was in the process: to have the discussion, to place a retired Mormon from Provo in position to have dialogue with a Muslim professor. And there is great worth here, if of different kind than can be footnoted.