Saturday, March 30, 2013

What is Mormon Studies?

If you were hearing the phrase "Mormon Studies" for the first time, what would you think?  What is Mormon Studies?  What do professors of Mormon Studies teach?  What do students of Mormon Studies learn?  What is the purpose of Mormon Studies?

These are legitimate questions with a wide ranging variety of responses.  But let's go to the source to find some answers.  Oh alright, let's go to Wikipedia instead.  Wikipedia defines Mormon Studies as:
"the interdisciplinary academic study of the beliefs, practices, history and culture of those known by the term Mormon and denominations belonging to the Latter Day Saint movement whose members do not generally go by the term "Mormon".

The Wikipedia article on Mormon Studies goes on to explain that: "Although some scholars' studies of Mormonism are primarily apologetic, either pro- or counter- Latter Day Saint faith claims, those whose work best characterize the field stand apart from claims in either direction and, even if they analyze Latter Day Saint beliefs or theology from a personal standpoint of Mormon-belief, of another religious belief, or of no religious beliefs at all, they couch their views in terms of encouraging cross-faiths and Mormon–"secular" understanding."

 It appears from this description that there is a difference between "studies of Mormonism" and real "Mormon Studies".  What is this difference?  Some see it at the difference in "tone" or "approach", not a rejection of apologetics, but a new approach to apologetics:

"These younger scholars have a new attitude toward Mormon apologetics. They are no longer so interested in defending the faith in the old sense.  In the time of Nibley, the aim of scholarship was to prove Mormonism true.  In the new age, the aim of Mormon scholarship is to find the truth about Mormonism.  Among the scholars writing today are many who are as proud of the Church, as interested in its flourishing, and as committed to its mission as the previous age, but they follow a new maxim, voiced tellingly by James Faulconer: Richness is the new proof.  Rather than attempting scientific proofs of Mormonism as a previous age tried to do, they point to its cultural depth, its scope, its usefulness, in short, its richness.  The unspoken assumtion of this rising group is that Mormonism will flourish best if its true nature is uncovered and investigated, not if it is proven perfect and infallible." - Richard Bushman

Just what is this "apologetics of richness" and what does that mean?  Among others, Professor William Hamblin remains skeptical about this new approach:

"We need to begin with a couple of clarifications. No apologist I know tries to “prove Mormonism is true.” No apologist I know believes there are any “scientific proofs of Mormonism.” (There can be no “scientific” proof of history–which cannot be empirically investigated since the past no longer exists–nor of religious claims, which are inherently parahistorical.) No apologist I know claims the church is “perfect and infallible.” All Apologists I know reject the possibility of establishing such proof using any known scholarly method. Second, if Mormonism is indeed “true,” then understanding that fact is indeed “finding the truth about Mormonism.” In other words, the “truth about Mormonism” may well be that “Mormonism is true.” To me, Bushman’s description of “old” apologetics is a straw man caricature."

Professor Hamblin continues: "Let’s turn to Park’s claim (via Faulconer) that “richness is the new proof” of the new apologetics. First of all, richness is not a methodology, and there is no academic means by which one can discover richness. It is a quality–and a subjective quality at that–that one finds or fails to find in a text, or a religion, or a piece of music. There is simply no way to define “richness” or determine if a text is rich or not. It is really not at all uncommon for one person to discover richness where another finds only banality."

So which is the correct approach?  How should Mormonism be studied?  Why should Mormonism be studied?  Should it be studied?

Writing for Interpreter : A Journal of Mormon Scripture, professor John Gee answers some similar questions: "Is There any Discipline in Mormon Studies?", "Does a Specialist in Mormon Studies Necessarily Know What is Going on in the Church?", "What Will a Student Learn in a Mormon Studies Program?", "What Core Areas of Knowledge Should a Specialist in Mormon Studies Have?", "Will Students of a Specialist in Mormon Studies Necessarily Know Even the Basics about the Church?", "What is the Purpose of Mormon Studies?", "Are Scholars of Mormon Studies Necessarily the Best at Interpreting What is Going on in the Church?", "What Sort of Topics Should be Covered by Mormon Studies?", "Is Mormon Studies Reductionist?", "Is There a Political Program to Mormon Studies?", "What is the Student of a Program in Mormon Studies Supposed to Do with His or Her Education?", and "Are the Funds for Mormon Studies Chairs Wasted?"

Gee shares numerous insights from pioneers of Mormon Studies, including this gem from Arthur Henry King (see Abundance of the Heart): "For us [members of the Church], all learning is for God’s sake, not for its own sake. As soon as we speak of learning for its own sake, we set up learning as an idol independent of God. The Mormon tradition is supremely one of work, work for the Lord and others—service. Work is the second great virtue. Caring or love is the first; and work should spring from caring. The object of a Mormon university must be to build the kingdom of God, to serve in the Church in the full sense of what that implies. Because we believe in the Church, because we believe it to be the most important organization on this earth, because we believe it to be the instrument of God’s will, because we believe Christ is its head, we must therefore believe that any organization that the Church sets up must finally and ultimately serve the Church."

In a similar vein, as Gee has also pointed out on his blog, another pioneer of Mormon Studies imparted the following wisdom: "I hope you don't underestimate the significance of what you do as articulators of the faith. In praising C. S. Lewis Austin Farrar said the following (and when I think of this quote I think of FARMS), "Though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish." An excellent quote. . . . I mention also to you, in the spirit of appreciation, that I believe much of the vindication that will come to the Prophet and to this work of the Restoration, will come by scholars who are committed to the kingdom, who are unequivocally devoted to it. . . . I myself would be reluctant if you ever moved away from what had become your traditional role. Enterprises of scholarship may be like some businesses who fail at enlargement or lose the essence of what they have been successful at doing." (Elder Neal A. Maxwell, FARMS Annual Recognition Banquet, 27 September 1991)

In conclusion, it will be interesting to observe developments in the field of Mormon Studies.  If, as Bushman surmises, "Mormonism will flourish best if its true nature is uncovered and investigated", might not the same be true of Mormon Studies, that it will flourish best if its true nature is uncovered and investigated?  If, as the Wikipedia article asserts, "those whose work best characterize the field stand apart from [faith] claims in either direction", in which direction will Mormon Studies go?