Mormonism at the Crossroads of Philosophy and Theology: Essays in Honor of David L. Paulsen

Claremont’s Sacred Grove

[See here for detailed information about this volume as well as some early reviews]

In early 2007 I was in my second semester of a Master’s program in Religion at Claremont School of Theology (now part of a multi-religious consortium, Claremont Lincoln University). By now I had become acquainted with several other LDS graduate students who had made the unusual decision to professionally study and teach religion. We had varying interests: New Testament, Hebrew Bible, Ethics, American religious history, Philosophy of Religion, Theology. Some of us attended the School of Theology and others attended the School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University down the street (where I would eventually pursue a doctorate degree myself). Naturally, however, our shared faith brought us together as friends and colleagues, and we began meeting socially every week in what would come to be known among us as the “Sacred Grove”, in the shadow of the Kresge Chapel on campus. Some of the best and most honest discussions about faith, religion, doubt, family, scholarship, politics, and ethics I have ever had or, frankly, ever hope to have again, were held in Claremont’s Sacred Grove (sacred, indeed). On a weekly basis ideas, thoughts, opinions, testimonials, all swirled and agitated and collided with one another in a delicious frenzy of intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual energy as we struggled with and taught one another regarding the marvelous complexity of the American religious and intellectual landscape and how our Mormon selves fit into the complexity. I think everyone associated with those early meetings would agree that we were participating in and witnessing a Claremont Camelot, the beginning of an era that would welcome Richard Bushman as the first Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies approximately a year and a half later as well as the formation of the Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association.

In the midst of these exciting early discussions the early seeds of an anthology on Mormon philosophy and theology implanted themselves in my brain. I had discovered that a few of us had one particular professor in common that had more or less set us on the path to graduate school: David Paulsen, professor of Philosophy at Brigham Young University. I thought it interesting that none of us who were influenced by David had been one of his many research assistants (I was busy rearing newborn twins at the time), but we had taken classes from him and he served as a significant factor in deciding to go to graduate school to study religion. I had felt inspired and invigorated participating in his classes, and his openness about hard theological questions was sincerely endearing. After one particular class in which we discussed David’s Mormon approach to the Problem of Evil, I stayed after to inquire of him how we might reconcile the uncomfortable theodicy of Alma 14 with this approach. He thought for a moment and then responded: “I honestly don’t know. It’s a very strange and disturbing account. We’ll figure it out at some point. We still have some work to do.” This conversation led (at least in part) over the course of the next several years, to my own wrestling with the Problem of Evil and was perhaps my first impetus for seriously considering teaching and writing about Philosophy.

Accordingly, I began to bat the idea around our group and I was encouraged to take the initial steps to see how far I could carry it. I began researching David’s CV and reading more of his publications with the intent to narrow down some of his closest scholarly friends and colleagues, who might be willing to contribute to such a project. I encountered near universal enthusiasm; “If anyone deserves a festschrift in their honor it is David Paulsen” was the usual refrain. More than just an able scholar and philosopher, David was downright beloved among students and colleagues, even more for his character as a human being than for his scholarship, which had inspired and challenged so many over the years. People genuinely loved (and love) David Paulsen. The contributors were instructed to simply submit essays on Mormon thought; they could engage David’s work directly if they wished (several did) but this was not a requirement. I was simply looking for essays that thoughtfully and charitably engaged Mormonism philosophically and theologically.

With the acceptance of so many contributors I began shopping the book out to various presses. I wasn’t particularly hopeful; the book was a festschrift and major academic presses usually shied away from festschrifts. I tried approximately 8 or 9 venues and Oxford and University of Utah presses took my precis for the book fairly seriously; I had several email exchanges with each about the possibility. Ultimately, of course, it was  turned down. In the meantime, I had given Greg Kofford Books a copy of the proposal and it was accepted.

It took a considerable amount of time to collect all the essays. Some contributors had previously written essays or had collected extensive notes on some aspect of Mormon theological and philosophical teachings, which they more or less quickly assembled and submitted. Others began to write nearly from scratch and the receipt of those essays took considerably longer. Additionally, of course, everyone involved was busily engaged in numerous other projects and tasks, and so I believe it took approximately 2 1/2 to 3 years to collect all of the papers for the volume. Of course, I myself was still in graduate school, working sometimes nearly full time on the side, and raising a family with my wife. At times the scope of the project was daunting and I freely admit that there were considerable periods of time in which I felt I had to set the project aside in order to concentrate on other obligations that called my attention.

Over the course of the following two years the book began to really coalesce. Editing, revision, assembling the final manuscript, writing and re-writing the introduction. I was assisted immensely at various stages of the draft by Lavina Fielding Anderson, my sister Holly (herself a graduate student, teacher, and editor) and Loyd Ericson (a fellow Claremont alum) at Kofford. I learned some things along the way: these were a terrific group of smart and incisive essays covering a considerable range of thinking; editing was a meticulous, arduous process that often gave me severe anxiety; and indexing, by comparison, makes editing ecstatically pleasurable.

A few words about the book itself. If I were to conceive of a fully representative anthology of Mormon philosophy and theology, this book would not be it. For example, there are no essays that engage Mormonism and feminism, Mormonism and the environment, Mormonism and gender and sexuality, and other major philosophical topics, such as Ethics, are only discussed in varying parts of the book instead of treated comprehensively in a single essay or essays (David’s own co-edited anthology is in fact more fully representative in this regard). Of course, the book was never meant to be as wide-ranging as possible. Festschrifts are, instead, “people-driven.” Authors are chosen or themselves ask to contribute because of their personal relationships with the person being honored. And that is what determines the content of the book that is produced. In Mormonism at the Crossroads, there is a slight majority of non-Mormon contributors. Many of these are Evangelical Christians, others are liberal Protestants, and still others hail from different branches of Catholicism. Mormon authors are of course present as well, but all of them submitted their contributions as close friends and respectful colleagues of David Paulsen. As such, the content of the book reflects these relationships. Nevertheless, if not comprehensive, there is still a wide range of concepts and arguments in the volume, ranging from discussions of Mormon “atheology” to the possibility of an Evangelical Mormonism; from Liberation Theology to Mormon conceptions of divine embodiment; from Mormon approaches to divine transcendence to Mormonism’s confrontation with evil and suffering; from re-conceptualizations of what the Book of Mormon might mean for traditional Christianity to ways in which Mormons see themselves as religiously authentic in the American religious landscape; from Mormonism’s engagement with biblical hermeneutics to Mormon views of deification and exaltation.

I am certainly hopelessly biased, but I’m confident that the volume is a substantial contribution to the academic engagements with Mormonism on a philosophical and theological level. After all that, though, it’s ultimately been a singular pleasure to honor in some small way a human being of David Paulsen’s caliber.

Comments

  1. the narrator says:

    I’ll add a second hopelessly biased witness of this book. There is no other book available that exemplifies the wide spectrum of approaches that LDS and nonLDS thinkers have engaged in approaching Mormonism and Mormon theology.

    And unlike most Mormon interrelations engagements and collections, this volume does not offer an immediate LDS response/corrective to the nonLDS (and sometimes critical) essays, which I think reflects a growing up and maturity in Mormon Studies.

  2. the narrator says:

    I mean inter religious. Thanks autocorrect.

  3. Really excited about this. Congrats on the achievement!

  4. Sounds like a great collection.

  5. As a former research assistant for Dr. Paulsen, I just wanted to echo the OP’s praise for him as a teacher and mentor. I count his William James class as one of the highlights of my school years. I look forward to this collection.

  6. I have never taken a class from David Paulsen, nor have I ever attended BYU, but I was fortunate to come into contact with David as I was doing research for my own dissertation. Not only did he supply me with a helpful essay he wrote (on the parralles and contrasts between Kierkegaard and Joseph Smith) but he also sent me a free copy of his wonderful edited volume “Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies.” I deeply appreciate his interest and generosity. I look forward to reading this volume in his honor.

  7. I took Philosophy of Religion at BYU from Dr. Paulsen as a Philosophy undergrad. That was probably the first experience I had in realizing that we can ask questions about the Gospel and not feel like we’re being unfaithful. This perspective has been invaluable to me.

  8. I will come back and write a real comment later, but I couldn’t read this blog post without “Crossroads” by Bone Thugz N Harmony on a constant loop through my head. I’ll expel it and then give reading another try.

  9. Many of us who did not elect to pursue graduate studies in philosophy, theology or religion have also nonetheless been profoundly affected by Profesor’s Paulsen’s insight, energy, and warmth.

  10. Oh no doubt. You are the majority by far, actually. I mention this in the book–few of his students have gone on to this kind of graduate work, but his influence is nevertheless wide ranging.

  11. It apparently wasn’t clear that I was telling the story of the inspiration for the book, naturally from my own point of view.

  12. I took several classes from Professor Paulsen, worked as his research assistant, and published a paper with him (https://byustudies.byu.edu/showTitle.aspx?title=8720). He was the single most influential professor of my college career, without question. I agree with comment #5 that his William James class is/was superb, insightful, and though-provoking. I can’t wait to see the festschrift.

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