Religious studies and Mormon studies: Good or bad?

MormonStudiesCover_Vol2What’s it like to study about religion in a university setting?

I’ve come to believe that the answer to this question largely depends on what university you attend. Some universities are privately owned and overseen by particular religious organizations. Others are overseen by state governments. The immediate context of scholarly pursuits always impacts the work that results, but not always in predictable ways. As with many academic pursuits, there’s no simple one-size-fits-all definition of religious studies. This suggests we should be skeptical when we encounter generalities like this: “Religious studies is a secular enterprise which excludes and damages faith and dismisses believers,” or “Religious studies is what happens when apologists and theologians try to gain academic respectability.”

I’ve heard variations on both of these statements and I don’t want to simply dismiss the anxieties behind them. At the same time, I believe they overlook the diversity of approaches employed by scholars of religious studies.1 Take Mormon studies, for example.

Mormon studies is a sort of sub-field of religious studies. The most recent issue of the Mormon Studies Review represents this diversity in a collection of essays written by professors who teach religious studies and Mormonism in university settings. These professors hail from a variety of backgrounds, some Mormon and some not. The lead essay by Laurie Maffly-Kipp offers one model: “My goal,” she writes, “is not to convince [students] that the Mormon faith is good or bad, right or wrong. I do seek to help them become better informed about the tradition and, by extension, about their own religious beliefs (if they have any) and the dynamics of religious communities, broadly conceived.”

Interestingly, Maffly-Kipp suggests some professors and students approach religious topics reluctantly, fearing they might inadvertently demonstrate disrespect by addressing stereotypes or uncomfortable topics. She has discovered, however, that stereotypes actually provide a nice “jumping-off point for further learning” (3). She turns them to good use by introducing class members to the interesting realities behind the stereotypes. She has invited panels of practicing Mormons to discuss their faith with her class. She also requires students to attend an LDS church service, and to pursue correspondence with church members personally or through archival research (2). Maffly-Kipp has found that such personal interaction and attention to religious belief and experience as expressed by actual believers helps to clarify stereotypes. Rather than treating practitioners as parasites under a microscope, students engage with them as fellow humans with sometimes-differing worldviews. Some of Maffly-Kipp’s students in North Carolina who’ve been exposed to depictions of the LDS Church as a cult even find themselves defending Mormons to others based on their improved religious literacy (9).

Of course, religious studies and Mormon studies are not typically “missionary” enterprises. That is, their primary goal is not to encourage or discourage conversion to the LDS church. According to Maffly-Kipp, some students have reported feeling more inclined to become Mormon (or in some cases to become reactivated in the Church) while others have reported becoming more clear on their disagreements with aspects of LDS belief or practice (10). Engaging in religious studies typically helps students learn to engage the perspectives and beliefs of others more carefully and respectfully, even in the face of disagreement or disbelief:

“As I tell the students in the first week, my goal is not to convince them that the Mormon faith is good or bad, right or wrong. I do seek to help them become better informed about the tradition and, by extension, about their own religious beliefs (if they have any) and the dynamics of religious communities, broadly conceived. What they do with that knowledge has varied. I have taught inactive LDS students who decided after graduation to go on missions, evangelicals who continued to divinity school, atheists who read further in the Book of Mormon, and Muslims who found new conversation partners in local wards. Their journeys never fail to surprise and delight me” (10).

Critically engaging with others can help students clarify their own religious perspectives. It also can help them understand the diversity that exists within Mormonism—as well as within the practice of religious studies itself. That’s been my own experience as I’ve studied in the field of religious studies.

You can read Maffly-Kipp’s new essay “What They Learned From the Mormons” right now here. The rest of the Forum in volume 2 is great but it is only available to subscribers until the next volume is published. A digital subscription only costs 10 bucks, though, and it includes access to the Maxwell Institute’s other periodicals, the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies and Studies in the Bible and Antiquity. (Full disclosure in case my promotional conclusion wasn’t obvious enough: I work at the Maxwell Institute.)

NOTES:

1. For a fantastic and easy to read overview of the study of religion, see Bradley L. Herling, A Beginner’s Guide to the Study of Religion (London: Continuum, 2007). Ann Taves provides a nice discussion on the question of “bracketing,” that is, studying religion while setting aside ultimate questions of truth and falsehood concerning particular religious claims, in “Negotiating the Boundaries in Theological and Religious Studies,” available here. See also her conversation with Mormon Studies Review editor Spencer Fluhman here. Finally, MSR volume 1 has a great Roundtable on what Mormon studies is featuring a variety of perspectives. Read it here.

Comments

  1. J. Stapley says:

    This is a great, write-up. I’ve meant to for some time up my subscription. I’ll do that right now.

  2. Reblogged this on Here at your own risk and commented:
    Interesting approach to studying beliefs systems even outside the religious ground. Humans not only have faith in a deity, but also attend to tackle politics and morality with the same fervour.