Admin: Thanks to Jacob B. for this run-down of the recent Claremont Mormon Studies Conference.
This last Friday and Saturday (April 23-24, 2010) the Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association held our biennial student conference at Claremont Graduate University. This year’s theme: What is Mormon Studies?
Ben recently asked me to review the conference. This was an excellent idea, and I wish I had had the presence of mind to take better notes in anticipation of a more thorough review. But I’ll try my best. I will make a few preliminary remarks first and then provide a summary of the presenters’ remarks, concluding with my final thoughts and impressions. My summaries will be mixes of the presenters’ papers and my thoughts and reflections. I frankly can’t do justice to the conference proceedings here but we’ll have 12 hours worth of video up at our website soon, where you can compare the proceedings against the actual accuracy of this review. We are also producing an on-demand DVD of the conference. The papers will likely be published in some forum as well.
By all accounts the conference was a success. The presentations were impressive and extremely well-thought out. The conversations and debates that followed each presentation were equally stimulating. I spoke with more than one attendee who opined it was the best Mormon academic conference they had attended to date. We had anywhere from 30 to 50 people in attendance at any given time, so the conference was also fairly well-attended.
Mary Ellen Robertson “live-blogged” many of Saturday’s presentations for Sunstone’s blog (each presentation is an additional post as you scroll through the page). Her reviews are much better than anything I could add, so please check these out as well.
Jan Shipps was the keynote speaker Friday night. Her keynote address was probably the best attended part of the conference. I’m not sure if she ever announced a title for her paper. Her presentation was a combination of personal ruminations of how she became involved in religious studies, and then in studying Mormonism, followed by a more theoretical accounting of Mormon studies as a part of religious studies generally. The beginning of her presentation was intriguing because it was completely autobiographical, but it was fairly slow-moving, mostly because she was giving a probably too-long account of her own beginnings in academia. One amusing anecdote: though she had a PhD in history, when she and her husband moved to Bloomington, IN so he could take a job as an academic librarian, she was relegated to the post of “glorified secretary” at the Kinsey Sex Institute. When an opening for an adjunct instructor appeared, she said, essentially, “I was sick of sex and I just wanted to teach.” The presentation picked up when she began to place the study of Mormonism within the context of religious studies. The motif of the “pioneer” was present throughout her presentation; she was a pioneer in being a woman getting a PhD in history; a pioneer in being a woman in the religious studies program at the new IUPUI in Indianapolis (where she had to learn the study of religion on the job); and especially a pioneer in bringing the study of Mormonism into religious studies proper. Professor Shipps didn’t get into much of the issues that dominated the next day of the conference (where the study of Mormonism in the academy was discussed as problematic on many levels), but her historical overview of how the study of Mormonism was initiated in the academy and outside of the Mormon community was both fascinating and useful for framing the more theoretical questions that later came to be discussed. One memorable statement by Professor Shipps toward the end of the Q&A. She was asked how she had been personally affected by her long engagement with Mormon studies and Mormon people. Her response: “One’s own faith can be deepened and enriched by studying other faithful people.”
Loyd Ericson (a Master’s student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology here at CGU) kicked off the presentations on Saturday. I unfortunately missed most of it, as Professor Shipps hadn’t shown up to the morning session so I drove to her hotel to pick her up). However, the full text of Loyd’s presentation can be read at his blog, here. The title of his paper: “Where is the ‘Mormon’ in Mormon Studies? Subject, Method, Object.” To my memory Loyd was the only presenter who discussed the historical and contemporary use of the word “Mormon,” particularly as it applies to groups and contexts outside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (more on this in my wrap-up below). Loyd delineates 6 “subjects” or groups who study Mormonism. Mary Ellen provides an excellent summary of these 6 groups so I’ll just steal her list: 1. Pastoral Mormons: those teaching religion to other Mormons with a theological, evangelical, testimonial bent; 2. Mormon apologists: those who do academic work and employ specific faith statements to defend or prove the Church’s truth claims; 3. Mormon, but: a believer, but not an apologist; those who don’t allow faith to impede rigorous academic work; 4. Non-Mormon, but: not LDS, but not anti-Mormon; have a real interest in doing objective academic work; 5. Mormon “revisionists”: may or may not be believing Mormons; engage in critical academic work on Mormonism; explicit criticisms seen as attacks on Mormonism and these scholars’ work has often been marginalized in Mormon Studies; 6. Anti-Mormons: those with an explicit, stated purpose to encourage Mormons to leave their faith. Loyd then discusses the possibilities of a unique Mormon methodology. Does it exist? If not, should it exist? I believe Loyd essentially says “maybe” to both questions. He notes that the rest of the conference will deal with this question to one extent or another but no definitive answers will be reached; the questions will simply be clearer and there will be more of them. Finally, he discusses the object of Mormon Studies. What exactly is studied? Just Mormon history, Mormon theology, Mormon sociology? Or does the fact that a Mormon is studying a particular object change the object in some significant way? Quoting Richard Bushman from last year’s SMPT conference, Loyd points out that perhaps Mormons ought to be looking outside of Mormonism in their studies and critiquing the culture and the world from within Mormonism. Loyd’s presentation set the perfect theoretical tone for the rest of the conference. In fact, in my opinion it is required reading for future work on the topic.
Cheryl Bruno‘s paper was entitled, “Mormon History from the Kitchen Window: White is the Field in Essentialist Feminism”. Cheryl and Claudia Bushman were the only female presenters for the conference. We were quite disappointed that more women did not present, but Cheryl’s submission was the only one from a woman. I think it would be great if in the future women scholars (or at least a group of male and female scholars interested in the place of women in Mormon studies) did their own “Mormon studies” conference. Anyway, Cheryl’s paper was excellent. Hopefully she’ll publish it (or at least blog it). She discussed various types of feminism, with the broader goal of pinpointing a particular type of feminism that inheres in, or largely connects with, contemporary Mormonism. She highlighted “difference feminism” as having such a relationship with Mormonism, particularly the Mormonism taught by church leaders. Difference feminism is the idea that the male and female genders are indeed essentially (possibly ontologically and phenomenologically?) different. Additionally, specifically feminine qualities are extolled. The connection with contemporary Mormon should be obvious. Despite the problems that difference feminism faces on many levels, Cheryl said that it was at least a touchpoint where Mormon women could make use of it in relation to Mormon studies. As a non-academic at the conference (looking through the “kitchen window,” as it were) Cheryl described her everyday activities of sewing, making school lunches, and otherwise engaging in the sorts of activities that Mormon women have traditionally been encouraged to do, as being a potentially vital part of Mormon studies, inasmuch as these types of “feminine” activities are valued in Mormonism. (Here Cheryl is anticipating Claudia Bushman’s later presentation on the value of the individual unsung life of the average Mormon woman as not usually being a subject of Mormon studies). Cheryl’s ultimate questions were: is there a female way of doing Mormon studies? What would this look like? More of a focus on relationships rather than events and achievements? In Cheryl’s opinion, the field is white for a more open feminist discourse in which difference feminism can be used as a tool for reflection, discussion, and engagement with the wider culture. One tangential question I had for her but didn’t get around to asking: She quoted Simone de Beauvoir, who said that traditionally women have been seen as abnormal, while men have been viewed as ideal, as far as human emulation is concerned. De Beauvoir said that we must do away with such discourse. My question: in the Church, isn’t this reversed? But, because power is largely consolidated in men within the Church, isn’t this possibly even more problematic? In which case de Beauvoir’s call to rid ourselves of this kind of discourse still seems to stand.
Blair Van Dyke’s paper was entitled, “How Wide the Divide: The Absence of Conversation between Mormon Studies and Mormon Mainstream.” Blair is somewhat uniquely qualified to give this paper: he’s an Institute instructor at the Institute adjacent to Utah Valley University. But he is also extremely interested and engaged in the academic study of Mormonism. His presentation was the most personal for me; I have had some very negative experiences within the church community in which I live as a result of my interest in the academic study of religion in general and Mormonism in particular. In my experience Mormon studies is just as problematic if not more so as viewed from the inside (the “mainstream”) as viewed from the outside (the academy). There is something personally threatening to certain Mormons about their religion taking its place as one subject among many others to be discussed, dissected, re-framed, questioned, and debated. So much so, in fact, that I believe there is something of an anti-intellectual retrenchment among certain Mormons in reaction to this perceived threat. (One example: a high councilor in my ward, extremely and openly antagonistic to the academic study of religion, and directly referencing graduate students in the congregation, recently proclaimed from the pulpit that he didn’t need a PhD to have a strong testimony of the gospel. No kidding. Neither do I). Blair confirmed this anti-intellectual trend by beginning his presentation by informing us that prior to coming to the conference he had been criticized by some mainstream Mormons for presenting at the conference. He compared the interfaith work of bridging the gap between Mormons and Evangelicals (which has been going on for several years) to an intrafaith dialogue that must open up between Mormon scholars and Mormon mainstream. The burden for such a dialogue, however, must initially fall on the scholars, who have the most interest in a dialogue occurring. This has already begun with the likes of Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, Brian Birch, Spencer Fluhman, and others who have been willing to bridge the divide and attempt to engage mainstream Mormon audiences. One question, of course is: are their efforts merely apologetic in nature? If so, apologies for what? For some aspect of Mormondom, or apologies for the viability of Mormon studies itself? (Which, if the latter be the case, is what I think will be what distinguishes their efforts from traditional apologetics, not that traditional apologetics doesn’t have crucial place in Mormon thought and culture, which it does). Blair’s paper elucidated a crucial problem and movement going on right now in Mormonism. The after paper Q&A related to his paper was outstanding, but unfortunately I can’t recall it well. You’ll have to wait for the online video or DVD (or maybe someone can comment here). One memorable quote: A friend of Blair’s (I don’t recall if he was Mormon or non-Mormon) quipped to him: “When will Mormonism stop being a tradition and become a religion?” One legitimate question that was raised: how necessary is it really for the old, uneducated farmer and lifelong Mormon to become more bilingual in the language of academics? Is he missing out on something crucial that he needs to be an authentic Mormon or to live a fulfilled life as a believing Mormon? (The same question of course could be applied to any religious adherent unfamiliar with the traditions and methods of the intellectual). Blair’s answer was that the farmer may not be missing anything without which his religious life is a deception or a fraud, but certainly an expanded understanding of ways to approach and reflect on one’s faith can serve to make it richer and more profound. Further, without this ability Mormons remain somewhat paralyzed when speaking to those outside their culture and faith.
Christopher Smith spoke on “What Hath Oxford to do with Salt Lake?” He’s a PhD student here at CGU in Religions of North America and our primary non-Mormon interested in Mormonism (also the only non-Mormon presenter). Chris discussed various historiographical approaches to Mormon studies and described how the trend in religious studies in the modern era has always been to bracket or set aside truth claims in order to “objectively” study religion. Chris outlined four reasons why this approach was inadequate, and again I’ll rely on Mary Ellen’s resourcefulness (again, these are inadequate approaches): 1) Religious beliefs are theological, not empirical; truth claims fall outside of a historian’s job description. Chris argues that Mormon history does have empirical elements that can be explored–and that it’s not really possible to completely excise truth claims out of the study of religions. 2) Historians should report the facts and leave the interpretation to the reader. Chris argued that would make for pretty boring history books. More dynamic dialogue happens when people are confronted with ideas they don’t agree with and have to think about. 3) Tell histories in a way that the involved historical figures would recognize. Chris commented it is difficult to get in the minds of historical participants, even with plenty of documentary evidence. 4) The pragmatic argument–that how a religion functions is more important than whether it’s true” Chris points out that questions about truth claims are not the only questions of interest to historians. Chris labels these approaches “suspensive historiography.” Suspensive historiography is ultimately inadequate because it is not thoroughly and completely historical; truth claims religious viewpoints and interpretations are vital components of the religions being studied; to bracket them out is to pass over in silence these vital components and not to do justice to the religious practitioners who in the first place produced the religions under investigation. Heidegger once said that the philosopher or theologian must wait for the prophet. There is nothing to reflect upon, defend, criticize, investigate, without the prophet. In other words, the philosopher qua philosopher does not exist without the prophet. Similarly, the historiographer of religious history does not exist without the religious adherent and her problematic, “impossible” engagement with the true/false claims of her religion.
Adam Miller kicked off the three afternoon presentations. The review here will be a little rougher and less thorough as I was moderating both this panel and the subsequent scholar’s panel. Please refer to Mary Ellen’s excellent notes on the following two papers for additional information. Adam’s paper was entitled, “A Manifesto for Mormon Theology.” Adam is a professor of philosophy at Collin County College in Texas. His paper was somewhat philosophical in nature, though was ultimately more religious/theological. He began with a long story or parable from the life of the Buddha, The Parable of the Arrow. I’m surely going to butcher the story but it essentially is about a man who comes to the Buddha for answers to what he considers to be very important questions: is the world eternal? Is the soul different from the body? Etc. The Buddha replies that the man is like a man who is struck by a poison arrow. Before he will allow the arrow to be pulled out, he insists on discovering who shot the arrow; from what caste did they come; was the shooter tall or short, fat or thin; what was the arrow made of; and on and on ad infinitum. The man would surely die before he learned any of this. And still there would be birth, re-birth, sorrow, grief, suffering. Questions that do not relate to suffering and its causes and possible ways of cessation (critical questions, in other words, that have to do with life and its tribulations) are like the questions about the arrow and its shooter, questions we can trivially ask forever and ever and still die in the end, not satisfied or at peace. Adam compared this parable to the questions we sometimes ask in theology, questions that do not relate to suffering and the ramifications suffering has for life, and therefore are not ultimately theological. A main part of his thesis is that charity must be the foundation of theology and theological questions. Though theology is connected to historical, devotional, and doctrinal questions, charity must be its final object, through which theology truly becomes a collaborative, mainly scriptural endeavor, putting aside petty critcism in order to do justice to the lives of believers and their struggles in suffering. It was a very thought-provoking presentation. It is not, however, a necessarily uniquely “Mormon” manifesto; Adam said that it could be a manifesto for other religions as well, probably especially Christian theology, and could equally apply to Mormons and non-Mormon religious practitioners alike. Some in the audience raised some good questions in response: why charity and not some other quality, concept, or object? Essentially, charity, or the pure love of Christ, in the scriptures (and emphasized even more in Mormon scripture) is the chief theological virtue, in the absence of which other virtues do not exist or are irrelevant.
Jacob Rennaker’s paper was entitled, “Through a Glass Darkly’ Biblical Studies, Mormon Studies, Parallels and Problems.” Jacob is a PhD student in Hebrew Bible here at CGU. His presentation was especially peritinent considering the number of LDS scholars engaged in the field of biblical studies. He spoke on the unique problems LDS biblical scholars encounter on account of being LDS, and how these problems impact the study of Mormonism. Nevertheless, Jacob does see Mormon engagement in biblical studies as being productive in a number of ways, including illuminating Mormon texts in certain ways, and helping to frame textual issues that pertain to historicity. Anything that can add depth and scope to understanding Mormon scripture is can be enormously helpful. But Mormons can and should add their unique insights and perspectives to biblical studies proper. In other words, Mormon biblical scholars should not simply enter the world of biblical studies merely to help prop up Mormon studies alone; they should seek to contribute to the field as genuine scholars of the Bible. When finding and comparing parallels in ancient texts, Mormon scholars must be cautious that they not engage biblical studies solely in order to find ancient parallels with their own scripture. There are significant and illuminating areas of difference between and among ancient texts and Mormon texts as well as intriguing parallels, and a scholar should not myopically focus on one to the exclusion of the other. If Mormon scholars want non-Mormon scholars to take Mormon texts seriously, Mormon scholars can do no less in regard to ancient texts generally. I also recall that interestingly, Jacob noted that Mormon biblical scholars are highly respected and even internationally recognized in biblical studies where the area of investigation is non-canonical (Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, etc), but in Hebrew Bible and New Testament, generally much less so.
Greg Kofford closed out the afternoon session with a paper entitled, “Publishing Mormon Studies: Inside Looking Out.” Greg, of course, is the owner and publisher of Greg Kofford Books, and it was fascinating to hear someone speak on Mormon studies from a publisher’s point of view. Greg’s presentation was
mainly centered on his experience as a publisher of Mormon-related works, particularly a publisher who publishes, one might say, in the “shadow” of Deseret Book. Greg publishes serious, scholarly treatments of Mormon history, biography, culture, theology, and philosophy. He noted that his daughter began attending Chapman University in Orange County California some time ago. She registered for a course on atheism. Soon, her professor was having private conversations with her; he could tell she was religious and was surprised to learn she was a Mormon. Their conversations intrigued the professor but he had difficulty finding books that rigorously engaged and explained Mormon thought. Greg gave him copies of Blake Ostler’s seminal series, “Exploring Mormon Thought,” which the professor enjoyed and about which he had many questions. Greg said that this story illustrates the void in Mormon publishing, where the market has dictated a surge of publications in fiction and devotional literature (Deseret Book and affiliates) but little else in comparison. There should be more available works that seriously explore not only Mormon history (of which the literature is substantial and high quality) but also culture, philosophy, and theology, of which there is little in comparison. Greg’s presentation really spoke to one of the main themes in our call for papers: those who study Mormonism will largely determine what Mormon studies becomes, and the available literature will largely determine who studies Mormonism. It is the responsibility of Mormon scholars to provide such literature. I wish I could recall more here, Greg’s presentation was outstanding and received some excellent feedback. Perhaps another attendee could chime in and provide additional details.
The last panel of the day was our Scholar Panel. It consisted of Claudia Bushman, Brian Birch, Spencer Fluhman, Armand Mauss. This will lamentably be very brief (which I suppose is just as well considering the length of my review of the previous presenters. Again, I moderated this panel and had to deal with some video camera issues so my notes are scanty). As mentioned previously, Claudia spoke on Mormon studies as it involves contemporary Mormon women. She referenced the Claremont Mormon Studies Oral History Project, of which she is the founder and director, and is a part of the class she teaches at CGU on LDS women in the 20th century. The project essentially documents and records, through oral interviews, the lived history of LDS women, mostly in the southern California area. The point to be emphasized is that this aspect of Mormon studies is virtually ignored by the vast majority of those who study Mormonism. Claudia issued a call for scholars and laypersons alike to take more seriously this aspect of Mormonism, which is in reality of enormous importance to those who reside in the faith, and in many ways more important than the way Mormon studies and other studies are traditionally done.
Brian Birch presented a paper essentially titled, “In Defense of Methodological Anarchy.” Brian noted that the questions concerning who studies Mormonism, what should be studied, and who decides it all are still very much live and even relatively young questions. He advocated for an “anarchic” methodology, in which apologists, critics, “objective” scholars (i.e., no major axe to grind), experts in nearly any field, and anyone else willing to take Mormonism seriously as a tradition and religion all have an equal seat at the table. Mormonism resists tidy categorization; it is a much more complex phenomenon than many realize and will need a variety of perspectives in order to fully do it justice and therefore truly enable us to understand it.We shouldn’t expect to arrive at any final answers to the questions of Mormon studies, but the questions should become more and more clear and acute, which will better help to more accurately portray the Mormon landscape.
Spencer Fluhman‘s paper will unfortunately be getting the shortest treatment here (I was out of the room attending to technical issues for some of it). Hopefully an attendee of the conference who better remembers his paper can comment, or you’ll have to wait for the video. I do recall (and this may be in the Q&A portion) that he mentioned that Mormon scholars must be careful that they themselves do justice to the disciplines in which they are trained, when deciding to engage in Mormon studies. In other words, to stay true to one’s training and experience when studying Mormonism in order to make the study of it as rigorous as possible. He also described an experience attending a conference for Adventist studies. He remembered the eerie feeling he had that this was what Mormon studies conferences must feel like to an outsider. He noted that the Adventist scholars were wrestling with the same sorts of questions in trying to locate and contextualize Adventist studies as a discipline. To which, as Chris Smith recalls Kristine Haglund quietly quipped, “Just not on Saturday!”
Armand Mauss then gave an excellent presentation from the perspective of one who has been at the forefront of contemporary Mormon studies since its inception. Shawn Bennion, one of our PhD students here at CGU is putting together an article for Meridian Magazine on the various personal reflections of some conference attendees. Armand provided Shawn a summary of his presentation for the article, which I’ll post here:
Several important historical developments had to occur before Mormon Studies could have gained any traction in academia, especially the establishment of endowed chairs in that subdiscipline : (a) academic and judicial legitimation of the academic study of religion (religious studies), even in state educational institutions, as distinct from apologetics or devotional studies; (b) the accumulation of a large scholarly literature on Mormons, outside of LDS Church auspices or control; and (c) the support (at least tacitly) of a large segment of the LDS Church leadership for the endowment of chairs and the establishment of courses on Mormons as part of academic curricula outside of Church auspices.
Now that Mormon Studies is clearly gaining legitimacy, its practioners (professional academics), who benefit by training and fellowships in programs like the one at Claremont, will take certain ethical obligations with them to their eventual posts as professors in religious studies: (a) include in their teaching, and in their responses to journalists’ questions, not only their own academic observations, but also a fair and balanced portrayal of how a religion is understood by its own devout adherents; and (b) not permit their own personal intellectual transformations, including the extremity of disillusionment with their own religious heritage (should such occur), to compromise their willingness and ability to respect the conceptions of reality embraced by believers.
Richard Bushman was the concluding speaker of the conference. He noted the work of several of the graduate students and pointed particularly to those projects in which Mormons as Mormons would be interested, but which were not overtly “Mormon” themselves. Terryl Givens’ recent volume on pre-existence is a good example: it treats a topic in which Mormons are clearly interested, but does not “Mormonize” it, instead opting for a broad religious, cultural, and historical treatment into which Mormonism might quietly but importantly find a place. This is a crucial aspect of Mormon studies, and I believe Richard might even say the future of a successful and vibrant Mormon studies where Mormons can make serious and significant contributions to culture, society, and religion without trying convert the world to a Mormon point of view (a problematic endeavor at best).
Two issues that I did not see addressed very much, but which I consider to be crucial to the question: Loyd mentioned in his presentation the term “Mormon.” Who owns this term? Only the LDS Church? What about Fundamentalists, Community of Christ, Strangites, minorities, international groups, and other groups that might legitimately fall under the umbrella of “Mormon studies?” What happens to Mormon studies if they are included? How does it change? What remains constant? What gets discussed, what gets protected? Who then becomes marginalized?
Second, the fairly large presence of “amateurs” in Mormon studies. Blake Ostler, Sam Brown, Kevin Barney, Jonathan Stapley, and many many others, all have contributed significantly and in some cases monumentally to Mormon studies while working in other professions and without themselves being professors of history or religion at academic institutions. The study of Mormonism would not be what it is today without them. This is a phenomenon that should be further explored. Where do they fit in the overall scheme? Can we encourage more people to do Mormon studies “on the side?” Should we?