From a long time back I have observed that Mormons are so competitive that they want to have a superlative Mormon version of almost any kind of achievement that secular civilization manifests. Thus we have repeated calls for a Mormon Michelangelo, a Mormon Tolstoy, a Mormon Nobel laureate, and so on. Underlying these calls is the faith that, along with having native intelligence and extensive training, Mormon scientists, scholars, artists, and writers can expect to be inspired by the Holy Ghost. However, it is apparent that the call for superlative achievement among the Mormons has gone unanswered.
I would like to call your attention to an article recently published in Dialogue that attempts to explain why Latter-day Saint culture has not produced high achievement in a wide variety of civilized endeavors. The authors of the article are John M. and Kirsten N. Rector. (“What Is the Challenge of LDS Scholars and Artists?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36, no. 2 [Summer 2003]: 33-46.) I hope you will take a look at this article on the Dialogue website by clicking on Excerpts in the left pane menu. Go to Dialogue Website. In the following paragraphs, I will summarize this article. I would welcome your opinions as to whether high achievement is something Latter-day Saints should hold themselves to as a people. The Rectors have agreed to visit this blog and perhaps respond to concerns or questions you might have.
The Rectors open their article by quoting Orson Whitney, Pres. John Taylor, Pres. Spencer W. Kimball, Pres. Joseph Fielding Smith, and BYU clinical psychologist Allen Bergin on the inevitability of Mormon achievement given the inspiration of the Holy Ghost to which Latter-day Saints lay claim. Sadly, say the Rectors, results do not support these optimistic predictions. The Rectors show that “non-LDS scholars and artists are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the world’s significant advances in the fields of knowledge.” The majority of prize winners are not religious. Those who are religious are usually Protestant or Jewish. Neither Mormonism nor Catholicism appears to produce high achievement.
Having opened their article in this manner, the Rectors devote the rest of it to an explanation of the forces within Mormon culture that discourage achievement.
The first factor they list is “a lifestyle oriented towards familial relationships and ecclesiastical duties, which may not be conducive to achieving a high level of artistic or scholarly prominence.” In particular, they find that â”artistically or academically gifted LDS women are even more likely to experience these priority conflicts than are their similarly gifted male counterparts.”
The second factor they cite is the value that Latter-day Saints place upon “conventionality, orthodoxy, and adherence to authority.” The Rectors remind us that “from Shakespeare to Hemingway, Newton to Einstein, Galileo to Hawking, Mozart to Gershwin, and Rembrandt to Picasso, history’s great innovators have had a significant impact upon the world in large part because they have pushed the envelope of convention.” The Rectors urge Latter-day Saints to similarly push the envelope of convention.
A third factor which the Rectors emphasize is dogmatism, or close mindedness. “Dogmatic individuals,” they declare, “do not question their assumptions and, as a result, are highly unlikely to push back the frontiers of knowledge.” Even when such persons believe in the truth, their “knowledge of the truth will remain partial and static.”
The fourth factor is the custom of the Latter-day Saints to think of the operation of the Holy Spirit only in an ecclesiastical context. “As evidenced by the innumerable academic and artistic accomplishments of ‘gentile’ society,” write the Rectors, “the Spirit works in a wide variety of contexts, with a wide variety of individuals, who have a wide variety of life-experiences. Yet we Latter-day Saints don’t often acknowledge that the Spirit is actively involved with people who are not members of our church, many of whom have lifestyles incompatible with our religious ideals.”
I am personally ambivalent about the Rectors’ article. On the one hand, I recognize the unhappiness that derives from severe competition. On the other hand, I believe that human beings are most likely to be happy if they engage energetically in a wide range of civilizing activities.
Although contemporary Americans extol competition, they blithely ignore a built-in reality about it: there is always a loser. In modern America, a loser is by definition inferior. Contemporary Americans also tend to ignore the fact that the endemic stress from which they suffer derives from competition. I for one recognize, and often long for, the peace that comes when human beings accept their mediocrity.
I wonder whether the call for Mormon Shakespeares and Einseins derives from a subliminal inconfidence regarding their own faith? Is it possible that Mormons seek to authenticate it by besting non-Mormons in all endeavors. That strikes me as a bad reason for extolling achievement.
Finally, however, I come around to agreeing with the implication of the Rectors’ article. Human beings are valuing creatures. They are fated to choose. Agency is built into their genes. According to Mormon doctrine, agency is built into the fiber of their eternal spirit. So I come down on the side of achievement. I hate stress but I can’t evade my own habit of competitiveness.
I will add that I believe Dialogue, in which the Rectors’ article appears, encourages achievement among the Latter-day Saints. Dialogue serves as a forum where all sides of controversial issues in Mormon studies are aired. Admittedly its dedication to Mormon topics means that Mormon scientists and scholars will submit their work on non-Mormon topics elsewhere. But they can, and do, hone their discipline and research on Mormon topics for which Dialogue is an appropriate outlet. Mormon scientists, Mormon scholars, Mormon poets, Mormon story writers, and Mormon painters publish in Dialogue. It gives them a place to compete, an arena, a playing field. It places referees in the arena and on the playing field.