Talking about (part 2)

Part 2/3 (part 1)

The special case of the relationship between an investigator and an object of investigation is closely related to the problems of audience. To talk about a group or its history in an academic way generally requires a certain separation from that group. The act of establishing such an external perspective, so important to improving academic clarity, can be rather uncomfortable or confusing for insiders. These types of relationships and the tensions associated with them led to a sort of identity crisis for anthropology in the early twentieth century, and they have motivated substantial worry and theorizing among humanists in many disciplines.

I do not want to exhaust myself or anyone else with a detailed consideration of the theoretical debates about inside:outside, self:other, observer:observed that have occupied much of humanities in the West for the last many decades. But it is worth recognizing that what we see depends at least to some extent on both where we look and whence we look. The approach of academic history, while always in evolution and with the recognition that “objectivity” is often elusive, has been to encourage enough distance that the observer can comment from the outside about life on the inside.

But academic distance must be kept to only what is necessary, and no more. With this needed balance between inside and outside in mind, many scholars of religion have embraced epoche, a morsel of academic jargon drawn from Greek rhetoric that means, roughly, to pause or suspend. By this they mean that scholars should suspend their disbelief long enough to understand a foreign group or belief system. While not without controversy, the practice of epoche allows an outsider to describe a religious system as participants understand it, without constantly interrupting the narrative to comment on its truth content. Crucially, though, epoche does not require capitulation to the worldview under study. Once a tradition is allowed its internal consistency, the substantial work of scholarly inference begins. Even as a scholar practices epoche, she may easily infer meanings and causality that insiders would not endorse. The practice of epoche, a sort of continually negotiated compromise, requires both the scholar and the insider to see the world somewhat differently than they normally would.

When we are deeply committed to a community or a worldview, we may see outsider neutrality, even their exercise of epoche, as criticism or even an intentional affront. We insiders inhabit our world and know it intimately. That intimate knowledge has two complementary meanings. We know minute details, know the names of things within our culture, know that shibboleth is pronounced with an “sh” rather than an “s.” But we also know things in ways that reflect our internal location within a community. We esteem facts differently, experience tender feelings, know in ways that can be difficult to put into words at all, let alone communicate to a stranger. We on the inside can be prone to mistake a lack of focus on minute details as a marker of incapacity to see larger patterns in the data of our lives and cultures. We insiders can lose insightful views of the forest in our attempts to defend the particular appearance of a particular tree in the forest.

In my cultural history research, I have tried to acknowledge the insight of John Fellows, a Masonic hobbyist who wrote a book called Exposition of the Mysteries to try to show how eighteenth-century Freemasonry was a proper heir of the Antique mystery religions. Explaining why he would not provide the details of Masonic liturgy and myth in extreme detail, Fellows wrote, “To prevent that satiety arising from the perusal of long rituals, particularly those in which the reader has no faith, I shall confine myself to as few items in that respect, as is consistent with the necessary development of the subject.” At times we are all prone to forget Fellows’s insightful advice.

Insider resistance to sympathetically external history can shut off communication with outsiders. Mormon audiences were surprisingly harsh in their criticism of John Brooke’s Bancroft-winning Refiner’s Fire (Cambridge, 1996), and this highly gifted American religious historian seems to have abandoned further work in the area. I have myself been critical of Refiner’s Fire, though as I have spent more time reading the sources of Western intellectual history, I have become more convinced that, even as it overreached in places, Brooke’s work represents an excellent, illuminating treatment of various conceptual and intellectual strands in early modern history and an important account of the milieu in which Mormonism arose. Though I will continue to argue with Refiner’s Fire in future work, I intend the type of argument based in appreciation for the power of another scholar’s mind and with great respect for Brooke’s identification and interpretation of source material.

People committed to a community have a tendency to want to put their best foot forward. Many Mormons want to see tragedies like Mountain Meadows (on a much, much smaller scale many Masons have similar feelings about the Morgan murder) as entire aberrations, corruptions of their fundamental principles. Those heinous acts are of course aberrations, but they are more than that. It can be hard to see ourselves in criminals of a past generation, and that impulse can express itself in a kind of cherry-picking of historical figures, stories, and events. Not because we are malignant, but because we are human. The task of the scholarly historian is to stray just far enough from that human loyalty to be able to provide a hybrid sort of Archimedean point. This external viewpoint can be rather jarring for the insider trying to see from out to in through another’s eyes.

When we as insiders decry well-intentioned outsider history, we risk perpetuating insularity and alienating interested outsiders. Responding to insider criticism can be frustrating and draw time away from scholarly research; some scholars may not find the effort worth the time investment. Latter-day Saints will have the opportunity this fall to read an outsider’s neutral-to-sympathetic biography of Brigham Young. Will they be able to see, however temporarily, their second president the way an outsider might, or will the generally sympathetic frankness of the new biography elicit polemical responses? When Paul Gutjahr, a non-Mormon scholar of religion and text, answering a question about the possibility of an academic treatment of Book of Mormon theology, responded, somewhat wistfully, “such a study probably would not be popular among Mormons for a number of reasons (making it a project easily dismissed by a very vocal readership), and that might give scholars pause before they commit themselves to such a research agenda.” I worry that Gutjahr is right about this.

The controversy over the relationships between Masonry and Mormonism points out a subtle complexity in the scholarly practice of epoche. How shall we apply epoche when we want to understand how a group positions itself relative to other groups? What do we do with the fact that almost all religious groups hold beliefs about other religious groups that are at best misapprehensions and at worst bigoted caricatures? In a history of Mormonism, should Calvinism be portrayed as distant, hostile, alien to American culture? Even as writers like Edwards or Hopkins showed the beauty and majesty of Calvinism, many of their countrymen really did see it as distant and hostile. What those critics created in place of Calvinist orthodoxy owed as much to the critics’ misapprehension of the meaning of Calvinism as it did to Calvinism as understood by practicing Calvinists. With the shoe on the other foot, should anti-Mormon voices be valorized as expressing Protestant belief in a history of Protestantism? (Incidentally Spencer Fluhman’s excellent study of nineteenth-century anti-Mormonism takes a scholarly middle ground on these topics.)

If early Mormons understood Masonry as an imperfect vessel for ancient truths, one of many from which they felt called to reconstruct the primitive Gospel, how shall a scholar communicate that belief within the context of epoche? Some Masons reject strongly the suggestion that they might be an inferior vessel of ancient truth vis-à-vis Mormonism. But we will not understand how early Mormons encountered Masonry if we do not acknowledge the cultural concept that mattered to Mormons. That was the tack I took generally in my book, and I continue to feel comfortable with this basic approach. We inside the Mormon tradition ought to remember that this implication of epoche, applied broadly, will require that readers acknowledge that anti-Mormon writing was an important part of what it meant (and means) to be a Protestant. There will be scholarly settings in which anti-Mormon voices should and will be allowed their own appointment with epoche. (Again, read Fluhman.)
[to be continued]


  1. For a non-scholar it is very helpful to get a peek inside how you approached the source material and sought to position yourself in relation to your subjects. The links in this and the previous post were fantastic. Looking forward to the next in the series.

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