The first published book in our new Maxwell Institute series, Groundwork: Studies in Theory and Scripture, is Jad Hatem’s Postponing Heaven: The Three Nephites, the Bodhisattva, and the Mahdi.
This book offers, in microcosm, a model for the future of Mormon Studies.
The book is written by an established scholar with an international reputation working in a foreign language who is not himself a Mormon, it is fundamentally comparative in nature, and, rather than attempting to adjudicate Mormon materials, it aims to deploy them.
First, Hatem is Lebanese. He is a poet, philosopher, and Maronite Catholic. He writes in French and has taught at the Saint-Joseph University in Beirut for forty years. Specializing in phenomenology (especially the daunting work of Michel Henry) and philosophy of religion, his productivity is staggering.
If Mormon Studies is to take root beyond the bounds of an interest in Mormon history (which, though vital, cannot give life to Mormon Studies on its own), Hatem is exactly the kind of interlocutor we need. His knowledge of a variety of religious traditions is broad and deep and, methodologically, he brings a practiced, sophisticated, and sympathetic eye to bear on the doctrines and practices that attract his attention. Partners like Hatem can help us see crucial things that, otherwise, may remain too obvious and familiar for Mormons to notice.
That is to say, partners like Hatem can help Mormons see what is essentially Mormon about Mormonism.
Second, Postponing Heaven takes a comparative approach to its study of what Hatem calls “human messianicity” (I’ll say more about this in future posts). Models for these local, lowercase messiahs include Mormonism’s Three Nephites, Buddhism’s Bodhisattva, and the Mahdi of Islam.
This kind of comparative work, while valuable in its own right, will be crucial to the future of Mormon Studies because, rather than ending conversations, it can open them. And, in particular, it can open such conversations with scholars working on related questions in adjacent fields who do not themselves specialize in Mormon Studies.
We can, I think, accurately judge the health of Mormon Studies at any given moment (both as an academic endeavor and as a gesture of open-handed charity) by the number and substance of the interdisciplinary and cross-tradition conversations that it facilitates.
Third, Postponing Heaven may be most pivotal as a model for the future of Mormon Studies in that, rather than attempting to adjudicate Mormon materials, it aims to deploy them. Rather than cross-examining them, it means to love them.
Here, Hatem’s work on the Book of Mormon (and Buddhism, and Islam) is motivated by the rallying cry that gave birth to phenomenology as such: “to the things themselves!” Rather than focusing on Mormon materials for their own sake, Hatem engages them to help clarify the nature of religious experience in general, of Messianism, and of a special human kind of messianism in particular.
That is to say, rather than being primarily interested in the Book of Mormon itself, Hatem is fundamentally interested in the thing that the Book of Mormon is itself about: the Messiah.
For my part, I think that the future strength of Mormon Studies will in general depend on our willingness to take this same additional step: Mormon or otherwise, we’ll have to collectively have the courage to talk not just about Mormonism but, more, to talk about what Mormonism is itself about.