…Or, my re-view of Philip Lindholm’s book, “Latter-day Dissent”
I read the news today, oh boy. The New York Times has a little series on Mormonism, tidbits from five writers, “What is it about Mormonism?” It presents, for the most part, highly caricatured pieces of polemic. (Maffly-Kipp and Reiss hold their own, however.) Elsewhere, Tricia Erickson recently published a scare-all book warning America about the dangers of a Mitt Romney presidency. She’s appeared on various news shows and in articles as an expert on Mormonism. Here she is at something called One News Now:
“I grew up as a Mormon bishop’s daughter, so I know how they think; I know how they program their members…Mormonism is no different than any other cult. It’s very likened to Islam because they’re not really allowed to have critical thinking.”
She cites her mo-credentials to back up the claim that Mormonism doesn’t allow “critical thinking,” just like Islam. Yes, those scary Muslims. One of my grad courses this semester is “Contemporary Islamic Activist Intellectuals.” This presents an odd spectacle. I’m a Mormon, surrounded by Muslims, all of us engaging in critical thinking about Islamic intellectuals. Clearly, there must be more to the story than what Erickson lets on about. Or are Mormons a bunch of uncritical dupes?
Websites like “Mormon Scholars Testify” answer: no. To be Mormon does not mean to be without critical thought. But the existence of the site might also hint that certain insecurities or anxieties felt by some members of the Church in terms of negotiating faith and reason. Pointing to the high rate of Mormon college graduates doesn’t address other important questions, including what sorts of degrees we’re seeking, or how often women don’t complete higher education. Still, MST has an impressive number of engaging testimonies from women and men equally committed to Mormonism and critical thought. Clearly, there must be more to the story than what MST as a whole (though not individually!) lets on about.
This back-and-forth between those who claim the Church doesn’t countenance intellectual thought and those who counter that Mormonism has produced (and still retains) many highly intellectual folks isn’t new. It continues with Carrie Sheffield’s column in yesterday’s Washington Post, “A Mormon church in need of reform.” Sheffield lists her mo-credentials and says the LDS Church opposes critical thinking. As proof that Mormonism isn’t rational she cites critical “geneticists, Egyptologists and even the Smithsonian Institution,” without mentioning that other geneticists, Egyptologists, and other thinky-minded people might have reasonable responses to criticism. The column simply reaffirms the tension rather than exploring its roots, breadth, or depth. Thus, in my view, it isn’t a good example of the “critical thinking” Sheffield herself champions.
But this must be because she isn’t a disinterested spectator. She relates how she’s been hurt by being ostracized by family members and friends because she doubted Mormonism. I don’t know all of the particulars of her situation, or how she manifested her disbelief, or if she shares any of the responsibility for hurt feelings back then. I hate it when such things do happen, but I also deny that such things are a necessary outgrowth of Mormonism. I deny it largely because of my own personal experiences, much like Sheffield grounds her editorial in personal experience. Faith crises happen. How we handle them differs. How we handle them demands careful thought. This problem at its root isn’t unique to Mormonism.
Sheffield laments that Mormonism doesn’t offer a reform-type movement like she sees in Judaism, one where she might feel more comfortable given her beliefs, to participate as a Mormon without various doctrinal or cultural impediments. I’ve found room in places like the Bloggernacle, Dialogue, and the Maxwell Institute where robust conversation happens. I’ve tried to contribute by writing blog posts, doing research, and putting together podcast interviews with some of my favorite Mormon intellectuals. I’ve made some downright amazing friends in the process and I’m thankful for them. I don’t check my brain at the door when I enter the Church building, either. But I try to be careful when I offer differing perspectives, and I see a need for more humility on my part. (Much more could be said about this. Hopefully later.)
Sheffield adds: “Perhaps someday the church will not excommunicate, fire and demote people who want honest, church-wide dialogue about Mormon history and doctrine.” Of course, this statement assumes that if you work for any Church entity and haven’t been excommunicated, fired, or demoted, then you must not be interested in honest, church-wide dialogue. She says she hopes for a modern-day Luther to act the part of reformer to Mormonism. Any cursory look at the Protestant Reformation contrasted with today’s LDS Church and surrounding culture would easily demonstrate the problems with such an comparison. I won’t trouble with that here.
Instead, I want to look once more at a similar call recently issued in Philip Lindholm’s book, Latter-day Dissent: At the Crossroads of Intellectual Inquiry and Ecclesiastical Authority. (I previously reviewed it here.) Lindholm interviewed several members of the “September Six,” a group of scholars who were disfellowshipped or excommunicated due to various publications, statements, or activist-style approaches to problems they experienced with the Church. The book made me deeply uncomfortable with excommunication in general, but it also seemed to speak from a different intellectual and cultural climate than the one I currently swim around in. It doesn’t seem to notice any differences today compared to 1993. Lindholm’s introduction is the only real analysis the book provides. (The rest of the book consists of interviews.) His intro concludes: “Perhaps one day, the ecclesiastical Church will decide that enforcing doctrinal conformity in public restricts from coming forth the vibrant spiritual community to which it aspires. Perhaps not” (xxv).
The trouble I see with Lindholm’s “perhapses” is that they don’t rise above their own perspective. They propose a false dilemma. Problems there be, but disagreements over diagnosis–let alone prescription–are ongoing. Lindholm’s introduction and the overall book then is perhaps best viewed as a primary, rather than a secondary, source. The very questions Lindholm asks and the respective responses by interviewees reveal things about the circumstances of real people on the ground, but the perspective is limited. If the book (or the WaPo opinion piece by Sheffield) is treated as a secondary piece, as an accurate overview, I see it as problematic because of this inherent near-sightedness. They tell us part of the story, but they make no attempt to account for confounding variables. They avoid complexity in favor of simple narratives–some of the very problems they attribute to the LDS Church’s handling of its history or doctrine. They seem unaware of some of the best of what Mormon thought has to offer on these questions (work by people like Armand Mauss, Richard Bushman, Eugene England, etc., not to mention all the thoughtful people doing thoughtful work that doesn’t engage directly in the question of the relation between faith and reason but by its very existence testifies to some compatibility). Perhaps what is most odd in all of this is that critical reasoning, in terms of making use of or applying various intellectual models, isn’t really employed by Sheffield, Lindholm, or Erickson to help understand these circumstances. My ongoing training in religious studies keeps reminding me that there is usually more to the story, there are many ways to analyze the story.
This is why I question the use of “cult” models to understand the way Mormons live, or to describe the family troubles that sometimes appear when faith crises occur. Why not use comparative models on issues like nationalism, tribalism, etc. which may shed as much light? There are a multitude of models to choose from to dissect these problems, today more than ever, and if religious studies is supposed to suggest any one thing it suggests the need for multiple approaches. How could Philip Lindholm, a fellow who has earned seven academic degrees, miss that? Lindholm actually quotes Armand Mauss in his introduction, but fails to acknowledge that Mauss has advanced an interesting model to describe the cultural pendulum swings of the LDS Church. Mauss’s work directly engages the issue of how the LDS Church responds to and interacts with its surrounding culture. Mauss is another one of those critical-thinking Mormons, to boot. Mauss revisits his “retrenchment” framework in the most recent issue of Dialogue in his article “Rethinking Retrenchment: Course Corrections in the Ongoing Quest for Respectability.” Ironically enough, Lindholm’s book is reviewed in the same issue. But the gap between Lindholm and Mauss yawns as wide as ever. And it goes without saying that neither of them are likely to be quoted in your average Sunday School lesson.
Of course, Mauss’s work doesn’t make for very sexy news copy on opinion pages. It seems the Lindholm-esque story is more likely to appear in the news these days. (In response to the NYT a friend of mine said “Honestly, they can’t do better than two people who write Mormon exposes and a fringe playwrite?”) But Mauss is still worth the read. At least, as far as my critical thinking skills suggest.