The Perspectives of Faith: Why Mormon Faithful Scholarship is a Self-Cannibalizing Project

If one were to offer sweeping generalizations and a broad periodizing scheme regarding dominant intellectual movements in Mormon Studies, one might suggest that the “New Mormon History” was the focal point of excitement and energy from perhaps the late 1960s until the middle of the 1980s. Its successor, from the middle of the 1980s until probably the present, is the “Faithful Scholarship” project. The two movements differ in a number of ways, but perhaps most explicitly in that Faithful Scholarship attempts to present a specifically Mormon and explicitly believing account of Mormon history and society, while the New Mormon History attempts to analyze Mormonism in terms that are acceptable to both Mormons and non-Mormons.

The philosophical underpinnings of both movements have played a surprisingly important role in intellectual struggles between them. Perhaps the best way to get a sense of this is to read John-Charles Duffy’s excellent intellectual history and critique from Dialogue earlier this year, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day? ‘Faithful Scholarship’ and the Uses of Postmodernism” (41:1, Spring 2008: 1-33). Duffy recounts how Louis Midgley and David E. Bohn, in particular, used philosophical positions often referred to as “postmodern” in order to offer a critique of the New Mormon History’s attempts at achieving objective accounts of the Mormon past. This critique, in Duffy’s account, was devastating and has provided the intellectual basis for a marginalization of work in the style of Leonard Arrington and other New Mormon Historians since the 1980s.

Duffy is clearly right to point out that many of the most important current venues for research and publication in Mormon Studies have adopted positions related to Midgley and Bohn’s philosophical critiques of the New Mormon History. In particular, Faithful Scholarship is characterized by what Duffy identifies as “perspectivism,” i.e., the philosophical claim that all intellectual claims originate in one or another ideology. Since there is no a priori or objective way of determining which ideology is true or correct, we are forced instead to conclude that all perspectives are at least in principle valid. To the extent that scholars and readers in the broader intellectual community accept this position, they should welcome (or at least not reject out of hand) historical, social-scientific, literary, and other contributions that explicitly reflect Mormon faith. Such appeals to perspectivism have been explicit in Richard Bushman’s articulations of the faithful history project, as well as in past versions of the mission statements of BYU Studies and the late Joseph Fielding Smith Institute. (One might note in passing that the current mission statements of BYU Studies and the Maxwell Institute lack formal perspectivist language, although they seem to retain some flavor of the position. Perhaps a move away from this rationale for Mormon intellectual work is under way?) More broadly, this perspectivist position has generally been how Faithful Scholarship work in Mormon Studies has packaged itself for consumption by the broader scholarly world.

It is evident that ironies abound here, as Duffy, Massimo Introvigne (“The Book of Mormon Wars: A Non-Mormon Perspective,” in Mormon Identities in Transition, Douglas Davies, ed., 1996.), and others have noted. One might note, for example, that the development of perspectivist positions has been strongly influenced by the work of Friedrich Nietzsche — not the philosopher most closely connected with Mormon orthodoxy in most believers’ minds.

Beyond the strange-bedfellows irony just noted, there are deeper tensions in the Faithful Scholarship project as framed by these philosophical commitments. An appeal to perspectivism in particular, and postmodernism (however defined) more generally, can open the door to scholarly legitimacy for research that openly reflects current orthodox Mormon understandings of our past, our theology, our social practices, and so forth. Yet this philosophical background also makes explicit that current orthodox Mormon points of view on these topics reflect only one of many equally valid perspectives from which scholarly research could proceed. Someone who fully accepts the philosophy that allowed Faithful Scholarship to marginalize the New Mormon History must necessarily agree that an explicitly faithful Buddhist, Catholic, or Muslim recounting of Mormon history is just as valid and just as useful as explicitly Mormon Faithful Scholarship on the same topic.

Indeed, it gets worse. Faithful Scholarship, as articulated by Bohn, Midgley, Bushman, et al., has no intellectual (as opposed to spiritual) grounds for preferring research conducted from an explicitly Mormon point of view to research conducted from an explicitly secular point of view. Thus, the Faithful Scholarship critique of New Mormon History is, if taken seriously, entirely self-defeating; the New Mormon History was just as valid, as a perspective, as its successors have been. Furthermore, a perspectivist has no intellectual basis whatsoever for preferring an explicitly Mormon account of the Mormon past to an explicitly anti-Mormon account of that same past. Anti-Mormonism, after all, is simply another ideology, one that we can neither judge nor consistently rule out.

So far, so grim. Yet the collection of ideas often called postmodernism has at least one more unpleasant surprise for the Faithful Scholarship project. Simply put, perspectivism and other late modernist/postmodern philosophical positions are committed enemies of universalizing categories such as “faithful Mormonism” or “the Mormon perspective.” Such categories are, from postmodern perspectives, simply tools of marginalization used by the powerful. There is no “Mormon perspective” in the singular; there are only “Mormon perspectives.”

For example, it is incorrect and inconsistent to claim that Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith reflects what Mormons believe about Smith’s life. No; the book reflects what a Mormon, named Richard Bushman, believes about Joseph Smith’s life. Other, quite different, Mormon perspectives exist and can claim equal legitimacy. A perspectivist ought, in principle, to be as interested in a well-written biography of Joseph Smith from a 19th-century Josephite perspective; from a modern-day Strangite perspective; from the point of view of a critical Mormon feminist; from the perspective of a Peruvian convert; or from the vantage point of a secular, disillusioned former Mormon who believes Joseph Smith to have been a liar and a pedophile. None of these perspectives, Bushman’s included, can really hope to recover Joseph Smith’s life as Smith himself understood it — indeed, even if one of them did happen to recover that understanding, we lack access to Smith as a source of validation that would allow us to confirm which text had gotten it right. Instead, all simply represent equally valid perspectives on the Mormon past. Yet only some of these perspectives are acceptable to the church hierarchy and the other institutional and scholarly actors who have promoted Faithful Scholarship at the expense of other approaches to Mormon Studies.

This is the central tension with Faithful Scholarship. The project seeks to open space for explicitly Mormon faith discourse in the broader intellectual community — but only a certain space. It seeks to discredit existing authorities that deauthorize Mormon faith perspectives in intellectual discourse, but it also seeks to replace those authorities with a new power center that chooses which Mormonisms are allowed to speak. This incoherent position simply cannot hold.

If Faithful Scholarship is to succeed in its goal of scholarly acceptance over the long run, it will fail in its goal of focusing Mormon intellectual discourse within an authoritative account of Mormon belief and practice. The other Restorationist perspectives will suddenly be given equal intellectual standing. University presses will publish faithful biographies of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Wilford Woodruff from the point of view of current practitioners of polygamy; explicit anti-Mormons will occupy Mormon Studies chairs. Alternatively, if Faithful Scholarship is to succeed in its goal of presenting normative Mormon perspectives, the broader intellectual community will eventually marginalize it as simply a propaganda wing of the church. At some point, difficult choices will have to be made about the relative importance of maintaining the hegemony of normative Latter-day Saint belief as compared with scholarly acceptability.

Comments

  1. Some first responses:

    “the book reflects what a Mormon, named Richard Bushman, believes about Joseph Smith’s life.” Or, to take the perspectivist position even farther, it reflects what a Mormon, named Richard Bushman, chose to wrote as informed by his beliefs about Joseph Smith’s life.

    “difficult choices will have to be made about the relative importance of maintaining the hegemony of normative Latter-day Saint belief as compared with scholarly acceptability.” And what impact will this have for the rank-and-file believer? I think that many members of the Church forget that there are those striving for scholarly acceptability (or at least don’t trust them, in many cases), just as the scholars often forget about the rank-and-file perspective (in many disciplines, not necessarily LDS studies).

    This was a very thought-provoking article. I’ll have to keep thinking about the tension between opening an intellectual discourse, but narrowing its scope simultaneously. And we have to remember some of Brother Robert L. Millet’s thoughts (and, I’m certain, others’) on considering exactly how far do the Faithful Scholarship community wants to go in being acceptable to scholars.

  2. John Turner says:

    Does anyone know of any formal connections between “faithful Mormon history” and the new evangelical history of the past 30 years (Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, Mark Noll)? The perspectivalist move seems quite similar to what Marsden (my Ph.D. adviser) articulated in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, which, to put it simply, argued that if feminist, Marxist and other perspectives deserved a seat at the academic table, so did scholars operating from specifically Christian points of view. At the same time, however, he thought they needed to frame arguments in a way that could appeal to all academics (thus, perhaps somewhere in between the two perspectives that this post outlines).

    In short, I think these are issues that have animated much historical scholarship beyond Mormon History.

  3. Sterling says:

    Great discussion of ironies. Let’s explore a few more. Postmodernism says it is doing us a favor by advancing its agenda of relativism. But at what cost? Postmodernism has become the new grand narrative. Postmodernism is the new religion and everyone must worship. It has become opium for the masses. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it masks its true nature in order to attack universalizing categories. It has become so powerful that people are blinded to the fact that it marginalizes and oppresses traditional discourses. If people try to interrogate the machinations of postmodernism, it denies its complicity and blames everyone else in a hall of smoke and mirrors. Postmodernism is the new propaganda, certain in its claims and uniquely dismissive of counter evidence. It is the ultimate self-validating closed-system, since it controls the terms of the debate and transforms any attempt to prove it wrong into evidence that that the gospel of perspectives was always right. ;-)

  4. Great post! For a long time now I’ve considered writing a post exploring the ways I’ve seen relativism employed in the service of dogma and the obvious problems of self-contradiction in such positions, but this is a really interesting broader look at how Mormon scholarship is being undertaken in general.

  5. JNS,

    Intersting perspective. Just one question:

    1) If a primary goal is to have “faithful” Mormon studies accepted as valid and worth considering within the greater academic world, how else would you go about achieving that – other than drawing a distinction between “valid” (meaning “sincere”)and “objectively correct”?

  6. Sterling, poor old master narratives!!

  7. Neal Davis, thanks for your comments. I agree that there are pressures in both directions — toward pushing forward with perspectivism for both philosophical and professional reasons, and toward retreating in the direction of an anti-modernist position and asserting hierarchical authority for the sake of keeping faith with community expectations.

    John Turner, I think this debate is parallel with, and heavily influenced by, similar discussions regarding religious studies more generally. In particular, Duffy argues that Marsden’s contributions to First Things were important the development of the Faithful Scholarship position in Mormonism. Some related ideas can be found in Richard Bushman’s writings going back to the 1960s, but I would accept a claim that the major anti-positivist push of the 1980s in Mormon Studies owes an intellectual debt to Evangelical debates.

    Sterling, interesting thoughts. I’m afraid I’m not at home, in this post, to general-purpose debates about the utility of postmodernism as a perspective. These are important arguments, but they’re much too big for a single short discussion.

    Kiskilili, thanks — glad you liked the post. At least half of it is just popularizing Duffy’s excellent work.

  8. Ray, if we’re committed to having faithful Mormon positions accepted within the academic world, that’s probably going to mean that (a) the scope of what counts as faithful will be vastly expanded, at least for Mormon academic purposes, and that (b) we’ll eventually end up expanding academic acceptance of explicitly anti-Mormon positions.

    That is, if the goal is a place at the table, faithful Mormon scholars may be able to get that — by giving a lot of their ideological opponents a place, as well. If the goal is for normative Mormon discourse, but not other kinds of Mormon discourse, to gain academic acceptance, well, I don’t think it can happen.

  9. Thanks for the insightful points J.!

    The perspective mentioned by #2 for Marsden – if feminist and Marxist scholars deserve a seat at the table, why not us? – similar to a point Bushman makes in Believing History.

    He recounts a story of a scholar at a religious conference saying “it’s not like we’re proclaiming angels and golden plates” or something along those lines, without realizing Bushman was a Mormon.

    And if many in the scholarly community dismiss Mormon history prima facie because of the story of the angels and golden plates. If a tinge of postmodernism helps us get past that it will be a significant victory. At the same time the marginal value of postmodernist thought to us diminishes quickly past that point.

    Actually, some have anticipated this problem already. From my Randian days, I remember a statement to the effect of: once postmodernists succeed in convincing people truth doesn’t matter or is impossible to know, the door is open wide for religions to maintain control by telling people to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. After all, what is truth?

    The end goal should be to rebut the logical positivists (religion is like a square circle; the supernatural is logically incoherent) and admit the flaws of the historical method while excluding the all-perspectives-on-truth-are-equally-valid postmodern ideologists.

    PS for J. or Taryn – This is Sam from the Ann Arbor bloggersnacker; I sent an e-mail to the BCC admin address to forward to you, if you didn’t get it could you send me an e-mail to calcsam _at_ gmail.com and I’ll re-send my e-mail to you?

  10. Sam, it’s tricky, isn’t it? I don’t think non-Mormon academia in general is very interested in giving resources and support to the perspective of the LDS hierarchy per se. So using postmodernism only to rule out rejection of normative LDS discourse but not to give equal time to non-LDS-normative Mormon speech may be a bit of a non-starter in terms of intellectual politics. Why would non-Mormon academia in general play along? Either we rule out hierarchical control of academic speech, including control by LDS orthodoxy, or we don’t — in which case LDS orthodoxy remains marginalized.

    I’ll email you later today.

  11. J., at #8, as regards Mormon history and origins in the scholarly community, what’s the current balance of power between believing Mormons of one stripe or another and the Dan Vogel/evangelical/etc. “a wholly naturalistic explanation of JS is correct or necessary” perspective?

  12. As I was reading, I thought about all the feminist/gay/whatever studies in academic institutions. Especially the feminist/gay phalanxes have succeeded in defining many social issues in the way they like them to be seen. Hence, the talk about “gay rights” instead of discussing what it really means if Heather has two mommies and no daddy or vice versa.

    From a “faithful Mormon” point of view I’d like to say that I appreciate projects like Joseph Smith papers, which seeks to make everything available for anyone to make up his own mind. We may not interpret everything Joseph Smith said the way Brigham Young did, but at least it wouldn’t be someone putting words in his mouth he never said.

    I’m not much of a philosopher. I just think that it would serve us well to strive towards total honesty. Some individuals may have said things we embarrassed about, but if it happened, then it happened. Then those who want to benefit spiritually can take the issue to the Higher Authority. That, of course, is available to only the faithful, like it or not.

    In any case, if you confess to be a believing Mormon, there are people who will reject everything you say regardless of the quality of your scholarship.

  13. I guess I’m sort of confused: as regards Mormon studies it seems the two camps above are largely mutually exclusive and there’s no real way to give both of them more space at the table. My working assumption agrees with your #10 – that at the moment, the naturalistic JS explanation/anti camp has more credibility – and it seems like any way that gives the LDS hierarchy perspective more space automatically gives the anti-/naturalistic side less.

  14. Sam, I don’t really agree with that. As I understand it, Dan Vogel doesn’t currently make his living teaching and researching on Mormon themes. There are a lot more positions for Mormon Studies at LDS church universities than there are in the secular world, so the current balance of power probably broadly favors the LDS hierarchy perspective. The recent push to create space for work by these people, and to create institutional spaces for Mormon-themed research and teaching at secular universities, could change the status quo. As it stands, secular perspectives like Dan Vogel and anti-Mormon perspectives of various flavors are largely disregarded in academia. However, as the Faithful Scholarship position has developed, attention for academic works that Mormons despise (such as John Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire volume, and Clyde Forsberg’s Equal Rites). That is to say, both explicitly pro-Mormon and explicitly anti-Mormon intellectual discourse has traditionally been marginalized; the mainstream has largely disregarded Mormonism altogether. Bringing explicit pro-Mormon discourse into greater prominence has so far had the consequence of making Mormon discourse that is distasteful for normative LDS folks more prominent, as well. This trend is a predictable and probably lasting consequence of the way Faithful Scholarship has conceptualized itself.

  15. Steve Evans says:

    I’ve seen those feminist/gay phalanxes marching about campus with their tortoise shield formations, and it sends chills down my spine.

    Actually, I have no idea what you are talking about, Velska.

  16. JNS, I would prefer a place at the table to no place at a table that already includes many people committed to keeping us from the table. Let’s face it; it’s not like those with anti-Mormon views (defined broadly) aren’t already sitting at our society’s academic (or religious) table.

    Also, I generally am in favor of letting people make up their own minds and hearts through exposure to multiple perspectives. I don’t mind a distinction between sincere and normative, especially since I think normative often is too broadly applied to issues where it shouldn’t be. I certainly think there are areas where a normative discourse is fine, and even desirable, but I will sacrifice such a discourse generally for a representative slice of the pie being offered to the public. In the end, the opposition points are going to be made regardless, so I’d prefer our points to be discussed alongside them – even if that means we are represented by multiple perspectives rather than one unified norm.

  17. Ray, let’s keep this in focus. It’s not only secular and anti-Mormon perspectives that are at issue. Fundamentalist Mormon readings of Mormon history and theology are also at stake. Would you be comfortable with an FLDS professor of Mormon Studies? With FLDS biographies of Wilford Woodruff joining the Mormon Studies canon? That’s also an implication of the perspectivist position. Every position in Mormonism that LDS-normative belief abhors is a faithful position, as well; the perspectivist argument means that they are all just as good as the LDS-normative position.

  18. JNS, do you think that even if historians who have chosen to write their histories from a “Faithful Scholarship” perspective, such as Bushman, do not “give a place at the table” to explicitly anti-Mormon historians (i.e. historians who draw the most negative inferences possible from scant facts) that it means that their work can be simply ignored by the broader historical community? In other words, even if Bushman is not willing to say that Vogel’s inferences are valid given the facts, can Vogel and other historians in the field validly dismiss RSR in a future biography of JS?

    It seems to me that Bushman addresses and dismisses explicitly negative treatments of JS in RSR. So he is not allowing them a place at the table in terms of validity, necessarily, but he is addressing them, i.e. taking them seriously and not ignoring them. Does this act alone constitute making a place at the table for them? Or is the debate about inferences and what the historical record means part of this field just as it is in any other?

    Do you see any possibility of the historical record necessarily leading to inferences supportive of the normative Mormon understanding of how things “went down” historically? If not, then just say that “Faithful Scholarship” doesn’t have a prayer with scholarly validity (I think that’s what this post is saying, actually). If so, then the writers’ inferences can be judged on their own merits without the handwringing about meta-theory. In other words, one can write a review of RSR and address the inferences that appear faith-based on their own, debunking them with other inferences that one believes are more valid based on the record. It seems that this is actually what happens. The result is, perhaps, the Book of Mormon wars but, what else could there really be? Meta-theory entirely aside, you don’t expect someone like Bushman to put much stock in Vogel’s inferences, do you? And if he doesn’t, he doesn’t need “perspectivism” to deal with Vogel but rather he can write a review and attack the inferences head-on. It seems that is what everyone is doing anyway so I am not seeing the substance underneath this examination of “perspectivism”.

    To the extent that BYU Studies used to have language in its mission statement that can be interpreted as perspectivist language does not mean that it expects scholarly legitimacy based on a claim to perspectivism. My guess would be that, although the occasional individual might hope to hide behind a shield of perspectivism to gain legitimacy for work published in BYU Studies, most of the authors that publish there expect their work to be evaluated on its own merits, and if their inferences tend toward support for the Church-sponsored version of its history, then those inferences are open to debunking to the extent that the debunkers have more valid inferences, judged in their own right and not based on perspectivism.

  19. Glad you’ve brought some attention to Duffy’s excellent Dialogue article.

    I enjoy reading New Mormon History more than Faithful History because it is less strident. That said, I prefer perspectivism/deconstruction/postmodern approaches in general. My exception to the Faithful History strain of perspectivism is the overwhelming feeling I get that they want to have their cake and eat it too.

  20. Remind me again where Duffy placed Mike Quinn on the New Mormon History / Faithful History spectrum? Seems he was an outlier or exception of some kind.

  21. John F., one central focus of accounts grouped as postmoderism the claim that the historical record never necessarily leads to any inference. Interpretations of that record are always ideological, always partial, and always contestable. So Faithful Scholarship can only gain space in broader intellectual circles if it can accept the postmodern stipulation that there’s no universally valid basis for preferring, to use your example, Bushman’s account of Joseph Smith to Vogel’s. If such a stipulation is impossible, then Faithful Scholarship can’t, in the end, get where it wants to go with the perspectivist agenda.

    What I think you’re missing is that the perspectivist appeal is not for the consumption of people already in the Mormon community. Rather, the point is to try to create a receptive audience for faithful Mormon discourse outside the circle of Mormon intellectuals, committed anti-Mormons, etc. It’s trying to open the door for secular presses to publish future books like Bushman’s biography. So the question to ask isn’t whether Bushman disregards Vogel, but rather whether a prestigious non-Mormon press will publish Vogel, whether a D. Michael Quinn can get a job at a secular university, and so forth. This is the table we’re talking about — respectability among intellectuals outside the Mormon circle. Of course Mormons and anti-Mormons already talk to each other, but that’s not the point. If pro-LDS Mormons get Mormon Studies jobs at secular universities, other kinds of voices in the Mormon community eventually will, too. That’s the point — the same logic that opens the door for Bushman to have a chair of Mormon Studies also opens the door for an FLDS scholar to do the same.

  22. MT, how is “Faithful History” particularly strident? What are you using as your example of “Faithful History”?

    And when you say that works of New Mormon History are not strident, do you mean that you find them more objective? If someone like Dan Petersen scrutinizes the inferences drawn in such works is he doing something wrong — or do the inferences drawn in works of New Mormon History also have to stand on their own merit, just as the inferences drawn by Bushman?

  23. Matt, I don’t remember what Duffy did with Quinn. My personal view is that Quinn is a perfect empirical case for the muddle I’m pointing toward. Most of his work really fits the Faithful Scholarship plan of presenting Mormon history from a faithful Mormon perspective. The trouble is, it’s Quinn’s faithful Mormon perspective, which has often been out of step with LDS-normative perspectives.

  24. John F., I think you’re missing the point. Historical inferences can’t ever stand purely on their own merit; the act of interpreting a text always involves presuppositions on the part of the interpreter. That’s hermeneutics, etc., and it’s been a fundamental emphasis of theory by Bushman, Bohn, and Midgley regarding why Faithful Scholarship is a good idea in intellectual terms: because interpretation isn’t fully adjudicatable by argumentation, we need interpretations from multiple perspectives, including faithful ones. If you think there is an interpretation that escapes from theory, then you’re on the New Mormon History team, and not the Faithful Scholarship team.

  25. JNS, So Faithful Scholarship can only gain space in broader intellectual circles if it can accept the postmodern stipulation that there’s no universally valid basis for preferring, to use your example, Bushman’s account of Joseph Smith to Vogel’s. If such a stipulation is impossible, then Faithful Scholarship can’t, in the end, get where it wants to go with the perspectivist agenda.

    “Faithful Scholarship” can gain space in broader intellectual circles by being excellent history. RSR can stand on its own in broader intellectual circles and if a future biographer does not take account of it then that is shoddy scholarship. Taking account of it might mean slamming it for not dismissing JS’s own explanation for what happened out of hand. But it would need to do so in a detailed manner, examining the treatment one inference at a time to show where Bushman went wrong. Thus, even if “perspectivism” can really be used as a helpful term in discussions of meta-theory, it is not actually descriptive of what happens in the marketplace of ideas that is this field of history. Bushman has produced a more compelling look at JS’s “history” than Vogel. It’s too bad for Vogel but it’s the way things work.

    What I think you’re missing is that the perspectivist appeal is not for the consumption of people already in the Mormon community. Rather, the point is to try to create a receptive audience for faithful Mormon discourse outside the circle of Mormon intellectuals, committed anti-Mormons, etc. It’s trying to open the door for secular presses to publish future books like Bushman’s biography.

    I’m not missing that this discussion is about the reception of “Faithful Scholarship” outside our community. To the contrary, I am suggesting that it will continue to stand on its own merit. If good histories (i.e. well-sourced and presenting inferences that follow, even if not exclusively, from the historical record) are being produced by “faithful” scholars but ignored by the rest of the academy because of the faith of the authors, without taking into account whether the record and writing coincide or not, then the error is on the part of the broader community and there is a problem with their scholarship in failing to address treatments that are covering the same ground.

    So the question to ask isn’t whether Bushman disregards Vogel, but rather whether a prestigious non-Mormon press will publish Vogel, whether a D. Michael Quinn can get a job at a secular university, and so forth.

    I never said that the question was whether Bushman disregards Vogel. The issue is that Vogel wrote a book and Bushman wrote a book. They stand on their own and can be compared. Do they address each other? If so, does this mean that they both have space at the table, or does everyone already have a place at the table meaning that if you write something it will stand on its own merit, regardless of your ideology. Your ideology might be a factor in people being able to find problems with your work and your inferences but those criticisms will have to be expressed and valid in their own right. In the field of German literature, we could just dismiss anything written in the 1970s in East Germany about Goether without opening the cover. But this isn’t the right approach even if it is in fact what often happens in that particular field.

    This is the table we’re talking about — respectability among intellectuals outside the Mormon circle. Of course Mormons and anti-Mormons already talk to each other, but that’s not the point. If pro-LDS Mormons get Mormon Studies jobs at secular universities, other kinds of voices in the Mormon community eventually will, too. That’s the point — the same logic that opens the door for Bushman to have a chair of Mormon Studies also opens the door for an FLDS scholar to do the same.

    This doesn’t seem like a controversial point at all. The logic that allows Bushman to get a Mormon Studies job is the quality of his methodology and work, not an outside theory such as perspectivism. Of course non and anti-Mormons will eventually be taking chairs in Mormon Studies at secular universities. This isn’t a result of perspectivism but of the fact that the Church doesn’t own history by any stretch of the imagination. To the extent that the Church itself polices its own version of its own history among its members, occasionally excommunicating members who stridently proclaim that the Church is lying about its origins, is a different matter than who controls discourse in the broader community. My guess would be that Church leaders know full well that they could never control scholarship about Mormon history in the broader academic community but that’s not what its internal enforcement of its version of its origins is all about.

  26. John F., your comment is an ideal case of the positivist position that animated the New Mormon History. If scholarship stands on its own merits and those merits are successfully evaluated by existing scholarly circles, then we ought to conclude that Quinn, Brodie, Shipps, and Bagley are the objectively best historians of Mormonism; they get the most non-Mormon attention.

    But, again, the argument isn’t about good scholarship. That’s simply not the point. Mormons can do good scholarship for each other at BYU; nobody objects to this idea and it’s not at issue. What’s at issue is whether scholarship that explicitly presents Mormon faith claims ought to have a larger share than it currently has (i.e., a larger share than basically zero) of non-Mormon intellectual resources, academic jobs, and so forth.

    By the way, you’re possibly partly wrong about Bushman’s job. You may remember the controversy when it became known that Claremont folks had privately made known that the Mormon Studies chair was only available to people who had a reasonably LDS-normative worldview?

  27. What’s at issue is whether scholarship that explicitly presents Mormon faith claims ought to have a larger share than it currently has (i.e., a larger share than basically zero) of non-Mormon intellectual resources, academic jobs, and so forth.

    What scholarship actually does this that currently has a larger share than it currently has (i.e. zero) of non-Mormon intellectual resources, academic jobs, etc.? Is it Bushman?

  28. John, huh? I think it’s logically impossible for anything to currently have a larger share than it currently has. I think there’s some garble in your comment; I’ll try to work around it.

    What’s at issue here is the much-discussed mainstreaming of Mormon Studies. Mormon Studies has traditionally had almost no footprint at all in secular universities outside of, pretty much, Utah. Richard Bushman, for example, made his career doing colonial American history; Mormon stuff was more or less a hobby or a side note. Over the last fifteen years, a handful of people have gotten jobs doing Mormon Studies from an explicitly faithful LDS perspective in secular universities. This is the new development that the perspectivist approach has permitted. My point here is that, if this approach is to continue, its logical result will be to produce secular institutional support that does not currently exist for a great deal of research on Mormonism that will be highly distasteful from LDS-normative positions; the fact that a handful of LDS-normative folks have managed to do work in secular places with the perspectivist position as a tool to gain access logically entails this strategically problematic result.

  29. JNS, forget the garble. The question is, who is it? Is it Bushman?

  30. John, I don’t have a clue what you mean.

  31. JNS, I understand the implications.

    I am looking at and addressing this in the most narrow and simplest way possible first – the “principle”, if you will. You appear to be presenting two options: 1) allow all sincere perspectives and judge them individually on their merits – with all the risks inherent in doing so, or 2) encourage one normative account in order to exclude others that are unsympathetic or fundamentalist or anti or whatever else.

    I like the first option, and I admit it’s partly because I have a hard time believing an institution that already isn’t inclined to create a Mormon Studies chair would do so and appoint an evangelical or polygamous or anti-Mormon individual to that chair. Bob Jones University, sure; a reputable state or private college, not so sure.

    I know I might be wrong, but I still lean toward full communal dinners.

  32. JNS, I am responding to your comment # 26 and am asking who we are actually talking about here — who is “explicitly present[ing] Mormon faith claims” as their scholarship and also has a larger share than they should of non-Mormon intellectual resources, academic jobs, etc.

  33. “My point here is that, if this approach is to continue, its logical result will be to produce secular institutional support that does not currently exist for a great deal of research on Mormonism that will be highly distasteful from LDS-normative positions.”

    So the crap we’ve been dealing with for almost two hundred years might increase, but we will have some respected positions from which to fight it that have not existed previously. OK.

  34. John F., your question doesn’t track my post or the subsequent discussion here. I certainly don’t think anybody has more secular resources, jobs, etc., than they should. This isn’t a discussion about specific people, and it’s certainly not the case that I think Mormon Studies is too big a field in secular academia right now. Indeed, it nearly doesn’t exist.

    What we’re talking about are the probable unintended consequences of a specific intellectual strategy for making the case that secular academia ought to provide more resources than it currently does for Faithful Scholarship in general.

  35. JNS, do you view your criticism of “Faithful History” as an indictment of cultural history, generally, and histories of lived religion or phenomenology in particular?

    You stated above, “If scholarship stands on its own merits and those merits are successfully evaluated by existing scholarly circles, then we ought to conclude that Quinn, Brodie, Shipps, and Bagley are the objectively best historians of Mormonism; they get the most non-Mormon attention.”

    This doesn’t appear logical to me. Magnitude of attention doesn’t equate to objective measures of quality does it (especially in a politically saturated field)?

  36. TrevorM says:

    JNS, J stapley has a point. I think you carry the perspecitivist post-modern arguments to a logical conclusion, but people rarely reach those conclusions in practice. Just because any viewpoint is viable philosophically doesn’t mean that is reasonable, nor does it mean that people will be willing to accept it.

  37. Sorry to come to this discussion a little late. We have had similar, fruitful discussions about faithful scholarship and the growth of Mormon Studies at JI in the past. I just have a few comments. First, most of the Mormon studies chairs that have cropped up at secular universities have been funded primarily with money from Mormon donors. Thus, these appointments have been influenced explicitly or implicitly toward scholars that are, themselves, Mormon. Others that have made a name for themselves studying Mormonism, at least in the historical field, have made a name for themselves by placing Mormonism within a larger historical context. I think that the faithful/New Mormon History dichotomy, while central to the debates going on in specialized Mormon Studies journals and conferences, is actually less important to the academy than the micro/macro dichotomy. Scholars get jobs in History not simply by documenting historical events, but by connecting those events to a larger historical picture either analytically or theoretically.

    I also think that the turn away from the New Mormon History followed many of the currents in the historical discipline in general. Hardcore Social History fell out of vogue at the about the same time as the New Mormon History.

    All this being said, I agree that an institutional focus on faithful history also can legitimize the practice of Mormon history from a variety of other perspectives

  38. J. asks, do you view your criticism of “Faithful History” as an indictment of cultural history, generally, and histories of lived religion or phenomenology in particular?

    None of the above. The tensions discussed here arise with respect to an intellectual strategy of attempting to legitimate one and only one perspective on the cultural history, phenomenology, etc., of a marginalized group. The same anti-colonial logic that militates for a Mormon voice in academic discourse also militates for voices of marginalized members of the Mormon community in the same discourse. The tension identified here applies only to intellectual movements that simultaneously try to expand the range of discourse through appeals to anti-authoritarian ideology while simultaneously controlling the kind of discourse used within the newly opened space through some other kind of political maneuver.

    J. and Trevor, I think there’s a miscommunication. The statement regarding Quinn, Brodie, etc., was an instance of carrying John Fowles’s position that scholars generally somehow recognize superior arguments and reject inferior arguments to its logical conclusion.

    Joel, thanks for your thoughts. I agree that there are broader currents involved in all these trends. What I’m interested in here are simply the local ripples in those currents…

  39. Hm. I’m not so sure of that this monolithic “Faithful History” exists, does it? Seems to me that the best Faithful History would simply be good cultural history. Admittedly, I have a copy of Believing History but haven’t made the time to read it (so I could be misunderstanding the whole genre).

  40. J., I’d refer you quickly to my opening sentence, RE sweeping generalizations and so forth. That said, there is a consistent set of ideas, articulated most fully by Midgley and Bohn and operationalized most prominently by Bushman and Givens, that involves faithful Mormons doing scholarship in a way that is self-consciously and explicitly guided by their faith claims and that is offered as of at least hypothetical interest to outsiders as “a faithful perspective.” Duffy’s article does a good job of presenting a few further examples. So, while a bit of a generalization and schematization, this beast isn’t wholly fictional.

    Cultural history and Faithful Scholarship are orthogonal, I think. Cultural history has obviously been done a lot from other perspectives. These days, cultural historians are instructed to be especially sensitive to the diversity of worldviews and perspectives within the cultures they study. Faithful Scholarship can operate within the cultural history universe — but also in principle in any other genre or discipline. The distinguishing point for Faithful Scholarship is that the author is explicitly identified with normative LDS belief and seeks to interpret whatever evidence or data are used in light of that belief.

  41. I think TrevorM has a point.

    And generally J., in terms of practical consequences, the non-polygamous branches are something like two orders of magnitude larger than the polygamous ones, right?. I think resulting consequences are generally going to be between seculars, evangelicals, and “faithful Mormons” of one stripe or another.

    J#14, I take you as saying that as a result of this push it’s likely that the pie we’re fighting over will get larger. I understand that better now, thanks.

    I confess that at the end of the day I don’t currently have an understanding of what the New Mormon History achieved well enough to judge its desirability. When I get back to school I’ll read the Duffy paper though. (=free there; the school library stocks Dialogue).

    On a related topic, hopefully not threadjacking, what’s the outlook on the theology front as opposed to history?

  42. I guess I’d warn that, on the pragmatic front, the consequences may be more severe than people imagine. If academia has a bias on these issues right now, it’s toward finding the minority perspective. If Mormon Studies becomes more mainstream, I expect that the bias toward minority voices will kick in; smaller groups can probably eventually expect to be overrepresented at the expense of normative Mormon voices. An argument for this would be that the normative Mormon voices already have support at BYU and in the church, whereas the more marginal voices are a perspective that is otherwise missing unless given academic subsidy. This is, once again, the logic of perspectivism.

    On the theology front, things look poor, I guess. Theologians in other traditions (who have a job, anyway) have traditionally worked in seminaries. We don’t have them. (Well, we do, but our seminaries aren’t really seminaries.) And traditional academia hasn’t yet fully made space for theology, although there are movements to bring theology into closer dialogue with religious studies. In any case, it’s an area where I think Mormon voices outside of CES and the church hierarchy will continue to have a hard time earning a paycheck…

  43. I think we have to distinguish between underdetermination and having no ground to argue. I think the Mormon perspective is that some phenomena key for establishing Mormon claims can’t be publicly established but that without that and without buying into the claim that silence entails absence there is by its nature an open arena.

    Certainly the opening can be filled by more than Mormon truth claims. And even within a Mormon view there are competing claims. (i.e. who was inspired and when)

    The point isn’t to establish some absolute truth from limited evidence. The problem is (and even quasi-positivists like Quine agree here) that there’s too little evidence available to do this.

    What the Mormon historian (or apologist) would say is that they take the opening and fill it acknowledging alternatives are possible. But, they feel, with the phenomena of the spirit in addition to the academic arguments you can have a compelling and perhaps overwhelming reason to pick one narrative over an other.

    Now the critic, even from within the community might say, well if you have the spirit why both with academics at all. Thats a more fair critique (and if I recall the argument from two years ago in Sunstone that was similar to Duffy’s made that attempt) I’d say though that you have to show (a) an explanation compatible with the facts and then (b) reasons to prefer this explanation over others.

    The more positivist answer to (b) is to pick only those most probable given public established evidence. The Mormon answer to (b) is the spirit. But both agree upon (a) as I think that’s just a requirement for truth.

  44. Clark, good points. It’s worth emphasizing that nobody, in Faithful Scholarship or any other tradition, is going to get very far arguing against the commonly accepted evidence. People may claim that Joseph Smith never dug for treasure and that the relevant evidence was forged; that he did dig for treasure but it was innocuous and God used it as a tool for converting him to his full gifts; that he dug for treasure and it was a sin that he repented of and gradually abandoned; that he dug for treasure and it was a con, one that set the pattern for his adult life as a deceiver. I think it’s plausible that a meaningful case could be made for each of these positions; interpretive issues involve the choice of one or another of these to emphasize, and the brands of academic politics discussed here will come into play in determining which kinds of perspectives are taken seriously in the broader intellectual debate. But there are nonetheless limits. Someone who claimed that the existing evidence never mentions Joseph Smith as a treasure digger will have a hard time being taken seriously by anyone.

    I should note, of course, that the seemingly strategic and limited use of perspectivism that I discuss here by no means exhausts the range of applications of ideas called postmodern in Mormon Studies. It’s just one position, one that is particularly important right now as an explanation for why secular institutions and scholars should pay attention to faithful LDS Mormons.

  45. To me, If there are secular institutions and scholars now wishing to pay attention to Mormon Studies, let them do it at BYU.
    Be very open, be a great host, but don’t give up the home field advantage.

  46. JNS

    I can’t think of anyone that actually embraces ‘perspectivism’ as Duffy and yourself have articulated it, where “all perspectives are at least in principle valid.” It seems like if such was the case, there’d be nothing to argue about; and if academics love to do anything it’s argue about how wrong every position but there’s is.

  47. SmallAxe, interesting point. I do know that people in the postmodern grouping love to argue with people outside of it. In any case, if you’re right, then Mormon Studies won’t ever grow in secular academia and it’s all just a pipe dream in any case.

  48. The text of the article is on the Dialoge website. It’s under “electronic articles”, but here I link to it for your convenience.

    Fun topic. I need to read more theory.

  49. Kevin Christensen says:

    I recall proposing one solution to the problem of what Duffy now labels perspectivism back in 1995. J. Nelson identifies the philosphical problem by stating “Since there is no a priori or objective way of determining which ideology is true or correct, we are forced instead to conclude that all perspectives are at least in principle valid.”

    With “Paradigms Crossed” in FRBBM 7:2, I observed that “Opponents in the debates about Mormon history and scripture typically criticize each other for having preconceptions and methods that influence their approach to the evidence. But merely to point out an opponent’s assumptions, though it raises issues, neither disproves the opposition’s case, nor settles the case for the defense. The current debate needs discussion of the means by which we decide why one set of assumptions and methods should be preferred over another. The assumptions and methods of each group of scholars derive from their respective paradigms. Thomas Kuhn’s work describes not only the nature of paradigms, but the means by which one scientific paradigm supplants another.”

    And on for 72 pages more discussing how this is done in practice. And subsequent articles and knocking heads with Vogel here and there.

    FWIW

    Kevin Christensen
    Bethel Park, PA

  50. In any case, if you’re right, then Mormon Studies won’t ever grow in secular academia and it’s all just a pipe dream in any case.

    I’m afraid I don’t get this.

  51. JNS – that’s sort of what I’m getting at. With the exception of soft facts that are perhaps up for debate since they are so interpretive bound no one is really disagreeing on the facts if they can be established. The problem is that many different stories can be told with the facts.

    What I see is some suggesting there is an obviously most plausible story with the others being far less acceptable. While that may occasionally happen I think it far less common than some.

    I should also say that seeing this as a showdown between pomo and positivism has always been a pet peeve of mine. I just don’t see it.

  52. I also dislike when Kuhn gets invoked in all this – especially since his notion of paradigm is hopelessly muddled in science let alone softer pursuits like history. Of course he points at a general approach but I think there are problems. (No offense Kevin, I largely agree with your points – I just tend to cringe when Kuhn gets invokes nearly as much as I do frames. And, as with frames, there’s a lot of truth to the ideas it’s just that there so much misapplication. Especially since Kuhn was in many ways working within the positivist tradition and his book was published by a positivist press.)

  53. Someone who claimed that the existing evidence never mentions Joseph Smith as a treasure digger will have a hard time being taken seriously by anyone.

    I thought you said there were no superior arguments or at least that no one can tell what they are. Based on the quote above, however, it looks like we agree. Thus, Bushman’s work can be evaluated on how it engages the evidence and whether the inferences Bushman makes are compatible with that evidence. Healthy debate can also follow regarding why Bushman prefers certain possible inferences over others. And of course everyone already has a seat at the table, independent of perspectivism. It’s just that their place at the table is at least partially dependent on what they actually say. For example, if they say that “the existing evidence never mentions Joseph Smith as a treasure digger” then they might well forfeit their place at the table.

  54. re # 47, SmallAxe, interesting point. I do know that people in the postmodern grouping love to argue with people outside of it. In any case, if you’re right, then Mormon Studies won’t ever grow in secular academia and it’s all just a pipe dream in any case.

    JNS, it seems like you are saying, flat out, that only perspectivism will cause Mormon Studies to grow in secular academia. That’s a non sequitur, right?

    If Mormon Studies didn’t exist, Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith could still exist in exactly the same form that it does now. It would be a work of American history in the cultural history genre, perhaps, and not a product of “Mormon Studies” at all. That the biography lets Joseph Smith speak for himself without taking extra space to offer speculations as to just how Smith was defrauding people despite what he was saying (Vogel) would not be enough to justify future biographers rejecting it without addressing it. The book presents evidence from the historical record and draws some inferences therefrom and in other cases abstains from drawing inferences after presenting the evidence itself.

  55. SmallAxe, yeah, that response was overstated. Blame the fact that it was late at night for me?

    I don’t know the extent to which people embrace perspectivism in their own disciplines, but it seems to me that something much like perspectivism is the basis on which people in academia outside religious studies, ethnic studies, and related fields justify the existence of those fields. In particular, university administrators and fundraisers often make appeals explicitly on this basis.

    I wonder what argument, other than something like a perspectivism position, would lead a secular university outside the Mormon corridor to create a position that could be filled by a scholar who is explicit about her own Mormon faith in her research? Invocations of concepts like diversity and representation fall within the boundaries of perspectivism here: the idea that having more points of view on campus is good per se, and not because those points of view might be specifically valid or correct…

    Clark, Midgley and Bohn were explicit on that point in their articles, weren’t they?

    John F., I love you, man. Let Rough Stone Rolling go. It doesn’t fit the conversation. In particular, I haven’t said a word that relates in any way to the idea that future biographers of Joseph Smith might disregard Bushman’s work. The question here is really about where future biographers of Joseph Smith will work.

  56. Which point? You mean about Kuhn? I’d have to reread them – it’s been a long time. As I said I don’t want to say appealing to Kuhn is always problematic anymore than talking about frames are. However it is quite abused and even if a particular author is careful and limited often readers of the article aren’t.

  57. John (54), yeah. I agree completely. This was the point I was trying to make way back in my discussion with Goff and Vogel. Note I’ve not read Duffy’s paper yet simply because I’ve not found time to go up on campus and make a photocopy.

  58. Clark, I actually meant the postmodern vs. positivist framing. That originates, in these discussions, with Midgley and subsequently Bohn, I think. They extensively reference the antipositivist classics (you know the list) in explaining why the New Mormon History was a betrayal of the faith, etc.

  59. John Hamer says:

    This is really interesting stuff, J. Like a lot of historians, I’m a dinosaur when it comes to theory. But even if theory resides in the rear of my two dinosaur brains, it’s still there for me as clearly as it is for our positivist historian friends. I think that my own work is probably an example of what happens when this perspectivist theory moves further towards its logical conclusion of giving consideration to the competing perspectives of all of the actors in the narrative.

    So, for example, when I am looking at the history of the Strangites, I do my best to consider and respect the perspectives of individual Strangite Mormons. I’ve been thinking about these ideas a lot lately. Thanks for giving me some more to chew on.

  60. In the end, I think your #47:

    Mormon Studies won’t ever grow in secular academia
    is probably the case.

  61. Nate Oman says:

    I haven’t read the comments, so this is probably coming too late, but I would point out that Duffy and to a certain extent JNS in this post are confusing a critique of modernism with relativism. They are not the same thing.

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